The Irish Times view on Fianna Fáil: preparing for election season
Success in the European and local elections in May would provide the party with a springboard for the general election
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has a strong hand to play in justifying support for Government as the threat of a no-deal Brexit develops. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/ Collins
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin will go to the party’s ardfheis in Dublin today in the expectation of receiving solid support for his leadership and tactical decisions. Delegate approval may fall short of adulation, if sharp disagreement within the parliamentary party over an extension of the confidence-and-supply agreement with Fine Gael is reflected by the wider membership. But loyalty to the leader has been a traditional trait within Fianna Fáil.
Martin has a strong hand to play in justifying support for the Government as the threat of a no-deal Brexit develops. Adopting a co-operative approach to protecting the economy resonates with worried voters who are appalled by the political mayhem at Westminster and the risks it poses to Irish agriculture, tourism and exports. His critics within the parliamentary party argue the way back to power requires aggressive and inflexible Dáil opposition. He takes a longer, more measured view.
Support for the abortion referendum and related legislation set him at odds with a majority of his Oireachtas members. That decision shifted Fianna Fáil into conformity with public thinking and the referendum outcome provided him with a bulletproof defence against detractors.
The recent confidence-and-supply extension, as much as his refusal to countenance entering government with Sinn Féin, infuriated the usual suspects. It also made Fianna Fáil the primary target for Sinn Féin in poisonous Dáil exchanges.
Like his critics, Martin knows he has one last chance of becoming taoiseach and he is getting his ducks into line. Success in the European and local elections in May would provide the party with a springboard for the subsequent general election.
In that context, recent threats of an immediate, post-Brexit election by angry backbenchers, because of the Government’s overspend at the national children’s hospital, were quickly quashed. The party would stand by its confidence-and-supply agreement with Fine Gael, he said. An election would not be held until 2020.
In the meantime, every effort will be made to maximise Dáil numbers. Ruthlessness is in the air. This week, Martin publicly criticised Cork TD Billy Kelleher for deciding to contest the European elections because his departure could result in Fianna Fáil not taking a second Dáil seat in the constituency. Fine Gael has led Fianna Fáil in opinion polls since Leo Varadkar took over as Taoiseach.
As things stand, neither party would be capable of forming a government on its own. Any kind of Brexit, hard or soft, will damage living standards, however, and could influence support for political parties. Like the impact of local and European elections, the fallout may take time.
Martin is in no hurry.