Pat Leahy: Ditching Micheál Martin now would be hugely damaging to Fianna Fáil

Rival Jim O’Callaghan is not stupid enough to think that a heave could be undertaken now

Jim O’Callaghan: he knows that the voters would not look kindly on an old-style Fianna Fáil heave three months after the party returned to government

Jim O’Callaghan: he knows that the voters would not look kindly on an old-style Fianna Fáil heave three months after the party returned to government

 

Brace yourself. The country – and its Government – face a difficult few weeks ahead as new restrictions are introduced to control the wave of infections that is gathering alarming pace, especially in Dublin.

The autumn comeback by the virus has scotched the public expectation that things would get gradually better, and replaced it with a sense of foreboding; the regular Department of Health research shows how pessimistic people are now. They expect things to get worse.

And although there is a well-established – if unpalatable – path to reducing infections involving various degrees of lockdown, after this week I suspect the public is not exactly brimming with confidence about the Government’s ability to improve things.

The coming weeks will also see the Government produce its first budget, often a difficult experience for new administrations as they come face to face with unavoidable decisions about the prioritisation of resource allocation. No government can afford to do everything it wants to do.

This year, however, is slightly different. Gargantuan levels of borrowing will eliminate at least some and probably many of the scraping, wounding decisions that face Ministers everywhere when they come to finalise their spending plans. Money will be thrown around like medals at a feis as the usual restraints on the instinct of politicians to throw money at every problem are loosened considerably.

But everyone should be aware that this budgetary never-never land will not be a permanent state. There is a monster of a recession extending its paws across the Irish economy, and while Keynesian spending is the sensible course of action now, that will not – cannot – endure permanently.

The budget that will be in preparation a year from now – assuming the Government makes it that far – will be a very different package from the one with which Paschal Donohoe and Michael McGrath will beam with on the steps of Government Buildings in a few weeks.

Public finances

Over the next 12 months the Government will have to regain control of the public finances as borrowing is reduced. Borrowing indefinitely at the levels currently undertaken by the Government will not be possible. This cannot be wished away. It can only – like nearly everything else in government and public policymaking – be achieved through patient and sometimes painful changes in policy that work not instantly but over time.

Bringing the public finances back into some semblance of sustainability requires two things: fiscal discipline and economic recovery. One of those is within the power of the Government to achieve, one is not. Either way, many more difficult choices await the Government in the next year.

So with the twin challenges of managing the pandemic and paying for it looming like the swords of an ambidextrous Damocles above the head of Micheál Martin, some of his party choose this splendid moment to start agitating to remove the party leader and change the head of the Government.

Time to go, says Éamon Ó Cuiv.

Others shuffle purposely in the undergrowth to a degree that is now audible in Government Buildings.

No, no, no, says Jim O’Callaghan, prince across the water of the anti-Martin cohort. This is not the time, he says, though he did not say when the time might be. Next week? If Cork win the All-Ireland? Christmas? The truth is, as everyone in Leinster House knows, that Big Jim is on manoeuvres.

The truth is also that he is not stupid enough to believe that the proposed amputation of Martin could be undertaken now.

We know that Jim didn’t think that Barry Cowen should have been sacked. But after that?

While this insight may not be common with some of his colleagues, O’Callaghan knows that the voters would not look kindly on an old-style Fianna Fáil heave three months after the party returned to government.

TDs – and not just those who hate Martin (I use the word in its literal sense) and want to see the back of him – are rightly spooked by the opinion polls and the stuttering performance of the party in government. But I think trying to ditch the leader now would be hugely damaging for the party.

This will remain true no matter how frequent and dazzling the pronouncements of Marc MacSharry – now referring to himself in the third person, I note, in the manner of a bushily-moustachioed Latin American colonel, or Pee Flynn or Diego Maradona.

Something better

What O’Callaghan and the others will eventually need to demonstrate is that an alternative leader would offer something different, and something better. Not for themselves, but for the party and the country.

We know they want jobs, for they have told us so at not insignificant volume. We know that they want Fianna Fáil to be doing better than 10 per cent in the poll. We know they’re not mad about being in bed with the Blueshirts.

We know that Jim didn’t think that Barry Cowen should have been sacked, or that Phil Hogan should have been made to resign. But after that?

They will also need to appreciate something else: the deeper problem that Fianna Fáil has is accommodating itself to the emerging new structure of Irish politics.

As noted hereabouts before, the principal division in Irish politics is no longer between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, but with FF and FG on one side and Sinn Féin’s potent mix of left-wing, anti-elite populism (“left populism”, as Eoin O Broin called it in a recent podcast discussion with UCD academic Aidan Regan) and nationalism on the other.

I think that structure is going to be with us for the foreseeable future, and it will squeeze Fianna Fáil on two sides. That will be the case no matter who leads the party.

It also means that, like it or not, the two old enemies in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are going to be on the same side.

You’d never guess it to look at the Government.

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