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Squabbling Varadkar and Martin may have to work together again

Pat Leahy: sometimes the Taoiseach doesn’t work hard enough at being the Taoiseach

Political leaders need a thick skin, but Micheál Martin was entitled to take offence in the Dáil on Wednesday afternoon. The Taoiseach, after all, had just likened him to a paedophile priest. The Fianna Fáil leader, he said, reminded him of a parish priest who preaches about avoiding sin while “secretly going behind the altar and engaging in any amount of sin himself”.

When people hear about sinning priests, one particular sin comes to mind

Leo Varadkar and his gang josh about Martin’s at times faintly clerical mien. They should keep it among themselves. It’s not on to compare your political opponents to sex abusers. And it’s really not on if you’re the Taoiseach.

Sometimes Varadkar works hard at being Taoiseach which, carrying the responsibility of leading the country and representing its people, is different from any other job in politics. His comments about the shared project of politics to improve society and the lives of people during the tributes to the late Fianna Fail politician Mark Killilea in the Dáil earlier that day were creditable and apposite. But sometimes he doesn’t work hard enough at it.


His relations with Martin have become touchy and rancorous. There are two of them in it, of course. Prior to the parish priest comments, Martin was scolding Varadkar about being “petty, silly and idiotic” in his responses.

This is the normal timbre of the exchanges nowadays between the two men – the debate wasn’t at all heated, as Varadkar suggested. They snipe at each other as a matter of course.

Those who watch their exchanges in the Dáil couldn’t mistake the deterioration in the relations between the two men since last year. People close to both confirm that this is more than the public face of their relationship. It’s the same outside the theatre of the chamber, says a person in daily contact with one of them.

I asked one of the pair’s intimates when was the last time they had a private conversation. “God only knows,” was the response.


But if there are two of them in it, only one of them is Taoiseach. And sometimes Varadkar doesn’t remember that enough.

At a time when public and political discourse is coarsening, political leaders have a responsibility. Some Opposition TDs – the far left, some Independents and some Sinn Féin TDs are particular offenders – seem to think it’s okay to say absolutely anything about their opponents, to impute to them the basest of motives and the worst of intentions. But it’s not okay, and people in high office should demonstrate by their example that it isn’t.

As ever in politics, of course, there’s more going on than meets the eye.

Fine Gael has been attacking Fianna Fáil – and Martin personally – since the local elections. Many of its online display ads and attacks have suggested (somewhat implausibly) that Martin wants to cancel a slate of capital investment plans in rural Ireland, when in truth he has raised legitimate questions about the consequences of overspending on individual projects, such as the children’s hospital, for capital plans more broadly.

Those familiar with the Government’s political strategy confirm that a focus on hurting Fianna Fáil by reminding voters of the party’s past disasters in government will remain a constant in Fine Gael communications. And, in fairness, they have a rich vein of material to work with there.

Why has Fine Gael gone to war?

Because the local elections demonstrated that the two parties are neck-and-neck, and Varadkar’s honchos know that if that remains the case Fianna Fáil has a better chance of putting together the bones of a coalition in the next Dáil.

While Varadkar has been merrily swatting away the Greens and the Labour Party and Social Democrats and the Independents in the Dáil chamber (to their regular chagrin), Martin has been cosying up to them, all earnest assurances and solemn intentions.

But the decisive factor after the next election will not be how much the kingmakers in the scattered archipelago of the Independents and small parties like Martin or dislike Varadkar: high politics doesn’t run on warm feelings. It’s the numbers that will matter most. It always is.


So run the numbers. Neither party will have a majority on its own, that’s for sure. The old two-hander, the big-party-plus-small-party coalition model seems unlikely to hit it either. And it’s touch and go that either Martin’s or Varadkar’s party could muster a Dáil majority even with the Greens and Labour, maybe the Social Democrats and a few Independents.

Which is why Martin and Varadkar could end up having to do business again whether they like it or not.

How that will turn out is anyone’s guess. If Varadkar leads on numbers, I can’t see Fianna Fáil offering another confidence-and-supply agreement.

If the opposite happens I understand it is Martin’s view that if he can muster more votes for Taoiseach than his rival when the next Dáil meets then Varadkar will be obliged to reciprocate the current confidence-and-supply agreement, facilitating a Fianna Fáil-led administration.

I also understand, from three people with a good claim to know his views on the matter, that this is very much not Varadkar’s understanding at all.

Fianna Fáil thinks it can force Varadkar into it; I have my doubts about that.

Either way, barring an outright win for one of them that looks unlikely as things stand, the two parties will have to work together in some shape or form to give the country a government after the next election.

Perhaps they should keep that in mind as the political temperature inevitably rises.