Fine Gael leadership contest could lead to damaging schism

Harry McGee: Varadkar and Coveney camps could end up in war of attrition

In May 1994 two prominent Labour MPs sat down for a meal in the Granita restaurant in Islington, north London. They were the leading contenders for the leadership of the party following the sudden death of leader John Smith.

A "gentleman's agreement" was struck by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown that day. One would get an unimpeded run in the leadership race. In return, the other would get huge powers in government with (probably) a guarantee he would succeed the other.

There was a reminder of that Mephistophelean deal in the Dáil last week. It came when Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney appeared side by side during Leaders' Questions on Thursday. This was in the middle of the great unpleasantness between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil over the water charges issues.

The previous week Varadkar had put his own oar into the choppy waters by reminding colleagues that Coveney’s deal was not all that great because only 8 per cent of people would end up paying water charges.


That was a very helpful intervention. So helpful in fact that the deal agreed between the two parties fell asunder. For 10 days they rowed and squabbled. And they then agreed a deal that was essentially the original agreed deal.

Proxy war

Just about everybody who wasn’t a Fine Gael member on the water committee felt that this row was a proxy war in the party’s ongoing internal leadership struggle. This was denied by Fine Gael people until they were blue in the face. The more they denied it the more you were reminded of a famous retort by Mandy Rice-Davies that deals very nicely with such assertions: “Well, he would, wouldn’t he?”

But back to Varadkar and Coveney during Leaders’ Questions. The Minister for Social Protection acquitted himself well with nicely-pitched criticism of Fianna Fáil for deserting the centre ground and going into the clutches of the far left.

In so doing, he namechecked a Fianna Fáíl icon: "The party of Lemass," he ventured, "which was once proud to stand up for things and would do the right things by the Irish people, now determines its policy on water solely out of fear of Deputy Murphy and of Sinn Féin."

Throughout Coveney sat beside him, nodding studiously.

More often than not, the mood among the losing camps becomes default negative and the sniping becomes infectious and habitual

Sometime later this year either Coveney or Varadkar will become taoiseach. For Fine Gael, after 15 years of safe Volvo driving (with only one wobble on the road in 2010) the passenger experience will change to souped-up Subaru Impreza careering all over the place.

The history of party politics has shown us that, erm, healthy leadership tussles can be destructive forces. Blair became leader and prime minster but Brown’s supporters briefed and plotted and undermined throughout his time. It cannot be argued that Blair was not successful electorally but the dynamic with Brown dominated the party and was detrimental to Labour over the long term.

It was the same in Fianna Fáíl. When Charles Haughey defeated George Colley by 44 votes to 38 in 1979, it created divisions in the party that took well over a decade to resolve. Though appointing Colley tánaiste the relationship (such as it was) deteriorated. That enmity would lead the party into a schism, with the Progressive Democrats giving the party its Avignon Papacy.

In the following decade it happened with Fine Gael as successive leadership squabbles involving Alan Dukes, John Bruton and Michael Noonan derailed its unity and focus. It reached its nadir in 2002 when the party suffered the kind of humiliating defeat that placed a question mark over its political future.

Undisputed leaderships

Sometimes parties suffer because the leader is a political duffer. Look at the succession of bellyflops the Tories had until David Cameron came among. Look at the Labour Party now. However, if we look at the two longest-lasting (and electorally successful) taoisigh in recent Irish political history, Bertie Ahern Enda Kenny, they held positions that were largely undisputed.

Someone will win the Fine Gael contest. But that’s no guarantee it will settle the leadership question.

The loser will in all likelihood become tánaiste and Minister for Justice (the role of finance will go to Paschal Donohoe, who may himself pose a future threat).

You will see all kinds of loyalties being pledged. But then supporters will have to be rewarded and some of the losing side might find themselves languishing on the back benches. If the tussle is close and heated, it has the potential of creating two camps with their collective fingers on the self-destruct buttons.

That’s not saying it will necessarily happen. It could be all be zen and kumbaya, but in my experience that’s not the way these things work out. More often than not, the mood among the losing camps becomes default negative and the sniping becomes infectious and habitual. Those who want a Granita-style deal would be well to remember that for the losing side there’s no such thing as a free lunch.