The political pendulum is never still. In recent months things have begun to look up for Fianna Fáil, while the mood in Fine Gael has become gloomier and gloomier. That will inevitably increase the anticipation and significance of the change in the Taoiseach's office due at the end of the year. However much the Coalition partners try to work together (some of them try harder than others), they know that ultimately they will still be electoral rivals.
After a very difficult first year as Taoiseach, Micheál Martin has had a good few months. His personal ratings and his party’s are improving, and he is no longer buffeted by events as he once was: he seems in command now in a way he previously didn’t, directing events across the Government rather than just reacting to them. I find this remarked upon across all parties and none in Leinster House, and acknowledged even by his rivals, inside and outside his own party.
Though people were apt to change their minds from time to time, the public broadly backed the Coalition's handling of Covid
There are several reasons for this, most obviously the (apparent, touch wood) end of the pandemic. Though people were apt to change their minds from time to time, the public broadly backed the Coalition’s handling of Covid.
That is clearly rubbing off on the Government’s leader, while the vivid contrast between Martin’s personal asceticism – not having his family at his election as Taoiseach, queueing for his vaccines with everyone else, and so on – and the decadent hypocrisy of Boris Johnson has done the Taoiseach no harm either.
As of last week the weekly Department of Health research shows 71 per cent of people approve of the Government’s handling of the current outbreak – the highest level since June of 2020, a point at which Fine Gael (then running the caretaker government that preceded the current Coalition) and its leader saw their ratings at stratospheric highs. Martin’s version of this is more restrained, but maybe more sustainable for that.
The ending of the pandemic has affected politics in multifarious ways, some obvious, some less so, some yet to make their influence felt. But one thing mentioned by almost all practising politicians is the return to face-to-face meetings and personal contact.
This is especially so when it comes to the weekly meetings of the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party, previously a very public forum for criticism of the party leader. That has all been dialled down, though the departure of the (very) vocal Marc MacSharry from the parliamentary party has also contributed.
Martin has also been able to begin constituency visits – an often overlooked (at least in Dublin) element of the party leader’s work that is extremely important for the organisation itself. One sometime participant describes it as “getting out and about, meeting fellas, shaking hands, getting two pages in the local paper and doing interviews on local radio” which sounds old-fashioned but it has real political effects. It also reminds his TDs of the Taoiseach’s popularity with the party grass-roots.
There is one more thing that has strengthened Martin's position with his own party very significantly: a viable alternative has not presented itself
The party organisation has also been engaged in a process of internal renewal. Kildare TD James Lawless chairs a commission tasked with renewing the aims and objectives of the party which has been geeing up people at all levels of the organisation.
Lawless’s group will report to the ardfheis, provisionally scheduled for May. I expect that will be quite the event, with levels of backslapping, pint-drinking and leader-worshipping not seen since the late Bertian era . “Fianna Fáil people like being in government,” one party figure says, with understatement.
There is one more thing that has strengthened Martin’s position with his own party very significantly: a viable alternative has not presented itself. After more than a year of growing rumblings about his leadership, and a sense that a heave against him was inevitable sooner or later, Martin confronted his internal opponents at the party’s think-in last September in Cavan at a lengthy meeting that resembled a group therapy session.
What emerged was two important facts: firstly, his opponents – some of whom are bitterly alienated from his leadership – had not organised sufficiently to mount a meaningful challenge; and, secondly, the middle ground opinion in the party, which wants to avoid a bloodbath but doesn’t think Martin can lead them into the next election, are content for his leadership to continue for now. The most widely touted replacement, Jim O’Callaghan, remains at best a potential prince across the water, and pretty far across the water at that.
The result of all that is the expectation of last autumn that Martin would cease to be leader when his period of Taoiseach ended – December of this year, remember – is now widely questioned. Members of all three factions – opponents, the loyalists/payroll vote and the middle ground – who spoke privately in recent days all agreed with this assessment. It still seems farfetched that he will lead the party into the next election, but the turnaround in Martin’s fortunes in recent months has bought him the time and space to consider his options.
In fact, the choices facing the Taoiseach are not limited to either going next December or fighting the next election. There is a third option: that he goes at a time of his own choosing between the changeover in the Taoiseach’s office and the next election, due before February 2025. That now seems the most likely outcome.
While all of this has been happening in Fianna Fáil, the mood in Fine Gael has become withdrawn and pessimistic. The uncertainty that hovers over Leo Varadkar due to the Garda investigation of the leaking of an official document in 2018 masks questions that will become more pressing as the changeover nears. What will a second Varadkar term be about? Can it revive Fine Gael's fortunes? And how can he avoid it ending in the same way as his first term?