Five things to know about Ireland’s new political landscape
Micheál Martin is in a hurry, the left is licking its lips, and ‘Maschal’ is a thing
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Minister for Climate Action, Communication Networks and Transport Eamon Ryan in Dublin Castle on Monday. Photograph: Julien Behal/PA Wire
As Hemingway said about going bankrupt, the change of government came gradually, then suddenly, last weekend. The novelty of the tripartite administration and the Opposition that faces it will soon wane. It was Leo Varadkar who once said that a Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael coalition would be like same-sex marriage: a bit strange at first, but pretty quickly everyone would get used to it and wonder what all the fuss had been about. But the changes this new structure and political competition brings to our politics will take some time to become fully apparent. In the meantime, here are five things that will I think be important in our politics in the short and medium-term future.
1. Micheál Martin is in a hurry
Martin has been a TD for 31 years; this is his fifth Cabinet. He knows you’re supposed to have a minister from the West. He knows he was making enemies in his own party with this week’s appointments, and he knows he had plenty of them to start with. But other things were more important to him. You can believe he is a ditherer, or utterly selfish and ruthless; but not both.
Martin’s overall political strategy is more important to him than keeping his TDs happy. It is to make measurable, tangible progress on health and housing and show people that Fianna Fáil in government has made a difference. With this in mind, new Ministers Darragh O’Brien and Stephen Donnelly can expect heavy oversight from the centre of Government. Martin has 2½ years to make a go of it. He could ask Leo Varadkar how quickly that time will pass.
2. Sinn Féin has a massive political opportunity
This is not just about leading the Opposition, with all the clout and media exposure than comes with that, though that is certainly part of it. It is also about the way economic and social conditions are going to develop over the next year. As David McWilliams and others have pointed out, young people are going to be especially badly hit by the economic effects of the pandemic. Their jobs – in hospitality, retail and so on – are first in the firing line. The special pandemic social welfare arrangements won’t continue indefinitely (there’s a big difference between €200 a week and €350) and while house prices and rents might come down, that won’t be any good to young people who have lost their jobs. And, as polling analyst Kevin Cunningham reminded us on the Inside Politics podcast this week, these are precisely the people to whom Sinn Féin speaks, and who look to Sinn Féin to speak for them. Don’t be surprised if Sinn Féin is the most popular party in the State before long, especially once the new Government begins to make those tough decisions everyone talked about before the Government was formed.
3. But Mary Lou McDonald won’t get it all her own way
There will be (is this ironic?) fierce competition among the parties of the left over who is the fiercest critic of the government. Rise TD Paul Murphy was positively relishing the prospect of it being “one of the most hated governments ever” even before it had taken office. When it is not abusing poor High Court judge Garret Simons as “a henchman for the political establishment”, People Before Profit is targeting Sinn Féin for its “embrace of neo-liberal policies” (what else?) in the North.
Localism remains important; Irish politics wants its local chieftains
Sinn Féin – as the official leaders of the Opposition – will get more scrutiny than heretofore. As we saw this week, when it was taken to task for a Cummings-esque display of do-as-we-say-not-as-we-do at Bobby Storey’s funeral, it will not find that congenial. The party’s army of online supporters, always ready to administer – in the phrase of the week on Twitter – “punishment tweetings” to those daring to criticise, might not like that. But tough. Power, responsibility, and all that.
4. The ‘Maschal’ axis is vital
The relationship between the three party leaders will set the tone for co-operation (or lack of it) in government, but, for the administration to function, the Merrion Street axis between the Department of Finance and the Department of Public Expenditure – and their Ministers Paschal Donohoe and Michael McGrath (aka “Maschal”) – is essential. In fact, the coalition agreement owes much to the relationship that the two men have built over recent years, and the common purpose they have shaped in recent months. It might not be a political bromance, but it is a solid foundation for the budgetary decisions to come, whatever you think of their merits. In his first interview on RTÉ, Taoiseach Micheál Martin was asked if he could promise there would be no return to austerity under this Government. He stepped around the question, like a dancing winger. Ask Donohoe or McGrath and they’ll say, “That’s not our intention.” But the truth is no government can promise it. You play the hand you’re dealt.
5. Politics has changed, but not completely
Some things remain the same. Localism remains important; Irish politics wants its local chieftains. The Fianna Fáil parliamentary party remains chronically undisciplined (Fine Gael culled 13 ministers and ignored a dozen hopeful TDs with barely a peep out of them). Politicians will scramble for jobs for themselves; the public will remain largely unmoved. Organised special interest groups – publicans, the tourist industry, public sector unions, to name only three who flexed their muscles this week – have huge power in Irish politics. They will continue to wield it in their members’ interests.
The challenge for this government remains unchanged, too, from all its predecessors: to identify, amid all this sturm und drang, where is the national interest, and, having done so competently and honestly, to make politics work to deliver it.