Stephen Collins: Don’t bank on a general election by spring

Varadkar-Martin relationship if anything better now than before Fitzgerald debacle

“An unexpected feature of the denouement in the Dáil on Tuesday was the expressions of mutual respect uttered by Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin.” Photograph: Dáil/PA Wire

“An unexpected feature of the denouement in the Dáil on Tuesday was the expressions of mutual respect uttered by Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin.” Photograph: Dáil/PA Wire

 

Paradoxical as it seems, the political hysteria that gripped Leinster House for the past week could have a beneficial long-term impact on relations between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

While the country came dangerously close to a disastrous Christmas election, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin appear to have emerged from the crisis with a new-found respect for each other.

That could prove important for the country in the weeks ahead, as the Brexit negotiations reach a critical point, and also in the longer term when it comes to the formation of a stable government after the next election.

There is no getting away from the fact that the episode left Varadkar with a bloody nose. He has learned the hard way about the kind of pressures and thankless decisions faced by his predecessor Enda Kenny on a regular basis.

While he can console himself that he is still in office and that the election, whenever it comes, will hardly be on worse ground than he faced his this week, Varadkar can’t escape the fact that came dangerously close to making the wrong call.

His desire not to throw Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald to the wolves in the initial stages of the controversy showed commendable loyalty to a colleague but as the scale of the problem facing her became more apparent he should immediately have pulled back from the brink.

Enhanced reputation

Martin emerged from the episode with his reputation enhanced. He held his nerve when it looked as if he had got himself into a sticky position, and in the event he emerged strengthened.

An unexpected feature of the denouement in the Dáil on Tuesday was the expressions of mutual respect uttered by Varadkar and Martin as they brought the curtain down on the drama which ultimately led to the resignation of Fitzgerald from the Cabinet.

There is a natural Irish distrust of British intentions but it would be dangerous in the long-term interests of the country if we are perceived to overplay our hand

Instead of ending in a bout of recrimination, as might have been expected, the bruising experience appears to have promoted a level of trust between the two party leaders that had not been there previously.

While the general consensus is that the episode has brought forward the date of the next election, with spring a real possibility, the exchanges between Varadkar and Martin suggest that is not necessarily the case.

One way or another the improved relationship that appears to have developed between the party leaders under the stress of a political crisis could prove important for the country in the longer term.

Whatever the outcome of the next election an arrangement of some kind between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil is probably the only way a stable government will be formed. That means it is vital that the two party leaders have some level of respect and understanding for each other’s position.

On the more immediate issue of Brexit they also need to present a united front because the pressure will be intense in the coming weeks as the negotiations between the European Union and the UK reach a critical point.

The breakthrough on the question of the British exit fee, and the progress already made on reciprocal recognition of citizens’ rights, means the spotlight will now be firmly on the issue of the Border.

A Christmas general election would have been calamitous on this score. Not only would it have distracted the Government’s attention from the overriding national issue it had the capacity to generate competition between all of the parties in adopting anti-British rhetoric.

The Brexit decision taken by the British electorate last year is a clear demonstration of the potentially disastrous consequences for a country of flag-waving for party-political advantage.

The pressure on the Government in the coming weeks will be intense and the last thing Varadkar needed was the political imperative of being seen to stand up to the UK come what may.

Delicate balance

Our EU partners have given Ireland an effective veto over the future of the negotiations but the corollary is that the Government will have to strike a delicate balance between the need to get a significant move on the Border from the British while acting in the interests of the EU as a whole.

The leverage given to Ireland by our EU partners is truly remarkable. It is a testament to the generally unappreciated efforts of Kenny to drum up political support in other member states, underpinned by a concerted diplomatic campaign.

The importance of Fine Gael’s membership of the European Peoples’ Party and the opportunity that gave to Kenny and now to Varadkar to develop contacts among the EU’s political leaders from Angela Merkel down cannot be underestimated.

Playing the Irish hand wisely is the challenge. It will not be as strong once the second phase involving trade talks has begun as the need for unanimity will disappear and the final decision on the overall Brexit deal will be made by qualified majority.

There is a natural Irish distrust of British intentions but it would be dangerous in the long-term interests of the country if we are perceived to overplay our hand. Making the right choices in the weeks ahead will be the real test of Varadkar’s leadership.

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