Fianna Fáil and Labour face the same summer crisis
Fiach Kelly: Micheál Martin and Brendan Howlin are both battling party malcontents
Labour leader Brendan Howlin. Some Labour councillors, spooked by dismal poll ratings as they face local elections next spring, have called for him to resign.
You wonder when Micheál Martin and Brendan Howlin next talk if they will discuss their respective non-barking dogs of summer. The leaders of Fianna Fáil and Labour are on friendly terms, and speak regularly, both on the normal tic-tacking of parliamentary business and on the wider political scene.
Often their interests have aligned. They were early in claiming that Leo Varadkar would enter coalition with Sinn Féin, a smart political tactic which suited them both. On deeper issues Martin is understood to have offered Howlin advice on how to rebuild after a shattering general election experience.
Over two years ago the Wexford TD took on the task of attempting to resurrect Labour when the parliamentary party closed ranks to stop Alan Kelly – whose temperament they questioned then, and still do now – succeeding Joan Burton.
“Micheál would have told him to keep at it, and that he would have to put up with a lot of s**t,” is how one Fianna Fáil TD characterised the exchanges between the two men, both social democrats at their political core. What Howlin has experienced in recent weeks is probably what Martin had in mind. Some Labour councillors, spooked by dismal poll ratings as they face local elections next spring, have called for him to resign.
Labour TDs and Senators have sought to head off the threat to Howlin, while others have largely kept quiet. Kelly, the dog who is not barking, is keeping his head down, refusing to answer texts or phone calls seeking his opinion.
Views in Labour are split between those who insist the Tipperary TD is orchestrating the moves against Howlin and those who believe he did not instigate what could hardly be described as a heave, but is now happy to allow it play out.
The fact that the attempted putsch from councillors gathered steam over the August bank holiday weekend – a period not normally known as a political killing season – does not indicate a Machiavelli operating behind the scenes.
In Fianna Fáil, Galway West TD Éamon Ó Cuív continues to allow his name float as party candidate for the presidency despite Martin’s decision to support Michael D Higgins for a second term.
Like Kelly in Labour, Ó Cuív has kept his counsel as others suggest how he could get a presidential nomination, which requires the backing of four county councils or 20 TDs and Senators.
One of his councillors in Galway has done the legwork, although the extent of Ó Cuív’s silence can be gauged by a confession this week from the loyal representative in question – Ollie Crowe – that even he feels “isolated” by the lack of public support he has received for his efforts
Crowe first proposed a nomination could be secured via Fianna Fáil councillors, and then suggested Ó Cuív would prefer the backing of his parliamentary colleagues to get on the ballot paper. He further claimed Ó Cuív would like Martin to reopen the issue at the party’s pre-Dáil think-in next month.
Such a wish will likely be unfulfilled since the majority of Martin’s TDs and Senators do not want to revisit the presidency debate. Some who may have wished to stand a candidate against Higgins nevertheless recognise Ó Cuív would not be the ideal challenger at a time when Fianna Fáil still has significant problems in urban Ireland and among the young.
The fallout from the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment forms the backdrop to the divide in Fianna Fáil between Ó Cuív and some who support him, and Martin and his senior TDs.
As Dara Calleary, the party’s deputy leader, warns in The Irish Times, any attempt by Fianna Fáil TDs or Senators to frustrate the passage of upcoming abortion legislation through the Oireachtas has the potential to cause damage to the party’s standing among the 66 per cent who voted Yes in May.
Whereas Martin has the strength to face down his malcontents, Howlin cannot be so confident
While a free vote on abortion legislation still formally applies, Martin has said that any amendments to the Government legislation from his TDs and Senators must go through Stephen Donnelly, the health spokesman.
It is, in effect, attempting to apply something of a whip to those – perhaps including Ó Cuív – who may seek to change the proposed regime which will allow for abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy.
It would not trouble the Fianna Fáil leadership if a handful of deputies had to be disciplined. Picking a fight with the strongest pro-life advocates may be just what Martin needs to show that his party, as a whole, will respect the referendum result.
Whereas Martin has the strength to face down his malcontents, Howlin cannot be so confident of meeting his own challenge head on.
Labour rules stipulate that a motion of no confidence in the leader can only be passed by a two-thirds majority at its central council, which has a membership of up to 100 people.
The strategy of those councillors acting against Howlin – most of whom support Kelly – seems to be that if enough of them make noise he will have to stand aside.
They have been invited to raise whatever concerns they have at the Labour pre-Dáil think-in, also being held next month. Even if their protests come to naught, the issue of Howlin’s leadership is unlikely to go away.
Howlin cannot comfort himself, as Martin can, that his trouble-maker is merely yesterday’s man.