Fiach Kelly: What does a taoiseach in waiting do as he bides his time?

A rotating taoiseach is about to be put into practice without any discussion of what it means or entails

It is remarkable that the Greens, Social Democrats and Labour are asked to support a government between the Civil War two without knowing who they are being asked to back in a Dáil vote for taoiseach

It is remarkable that the Greens, Social Democrats and Labour are asked to support a government between the Civil War two without knowing who they are being asked to back in a Dáil vote for taoiseach

 

Most prime ministers sitting down at the Cabinet table can cast their eyes around their colleagues with a strong idea of who their successor will be, and when they might take over.

In just a few short weeks Micheál Martin may be in the strange position of knowing precisely which of his ministers will take his position as taoiseach, and when.

There will be no need for manoeuvring, no jockeying for position – although there certainly will be to succeed Martin in his position as leader of Fianna Fáil – and a strange certainty of succession to the top job that is rare in political life.

Yet a rotating taoiseach, floated as a theory in Irish politics for decades, is about to be put into practice without any discussion yet of what it means or entails.

After initial suggestions that Leo Varadkar would remain in place due to the coronavirus crisis, Martin is set to be the chief occupant in Government Buildings at the outset of a Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael coalition, with Varadkar taking over in roughly two years’ time.

But we don’t know for certain: Martin has spoken of having a broad understanding with Varadkar, but didn’t go into detail.

It is remarkable that the Greens, Social Democrats and Labour are asked to support a government between the Civil War two without knowing who they are being asked to back in a Dáil vote for taoiseach.

The character, personality and temperament of the person who occupies the highest office are at times as important as the policy platform.

Maybe those traits will not matter as much in an era when the idea of the taoiseach as the driving force of government – nudging policy and strategy to their will – could be temporarily suspended.

Style of leadership

The next government is more likely to see a style of leadership similar to that in Northern Ireland, where Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill effectively run a joint premiership.

Questions of practicalities arise– the office of tánaiste would be enhanced and there will be dispute resolution and clearing-house mechanisms – but so do those of authority.

How does Martin impose his will on ministers who know he will no longer be taoiseach in two years’ time?

How much of a say will Varadkar have in Martin’s decisions, and vice versa? Can one overturn the decisions taken by the other?

How can one trust the other not to call an election at an opportune moment for, say, Fine Gael but not Fianna Fáil?

What does a taoiseach in waiting do as he bides his time?

The common suggestion in political circles is that Varadkar will move to the Department of Foreign Affairs, but some senior figures in Fine Gael suggest other more novel options such as becoming tánaiste without portfolio or Fine Gael leader in the Dáil who would remain out of Cabinet.

Those toying with such ideas acknowledge they would be difficult but not impossible to execute in Ireland, even if other countries have tried them before.

The taoiseach’s writ, traditionally strongest on the first day a new occupant takes office, may not be as unquestioned as usual. Both Martin and Varadkar will have to manage their own internal party issues from the off.

Party leader

The race to succeed Martin as party leader will begin the minute a government is formed, with a general expectation in Fianna Fáil that he will stand down once he has served his 2½ years as taoiseach.

Varadkar, said by Government insiders to be conflict averse, will have to cull ministers and disappoint the ambitions of TDs, immediately creating an environment conducive to resentment and factionalising – an environment in which rivals can swim.

And without a third party joining the Civil War two, the risk that such a government will fall before Varadkar’s turn to be taoiseach increases.

A minority government living hand to mouth, or one with a majority thanks to the support of a handful of Independents, may collapse as it implements difficult measures in the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis.

Nor does a shaky government guarantee that Varadkar would actually be elected taoiseach by the Dáil again in 2½ years’ time. For the transition to happen Martin would have to resign, and with him the whole government, without certainty the Dáil could elect replacements.

Such considerations are unlikely to be publicly aired, but are certain to lurk in Fine Gael minds. They perhaps explain the lingering sense that the party is keeping its options open.

Hard sell

While Martin personally promoted the framework document this week, Varadkar has, as of now, decided not to give it the hard sell.

Martin also indicated that he is prepared to form a government without a third party, in contrast with Fine Gael’s insistence, for now anyway, that an extra partner is a must.

Those parties being mentioned as the third leg say they require more information from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael on their policy proposals for government. But clarity is also needed on how the big two personalities will be managed in office.

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