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Stephen Collins: Varadkar and Martin’s jobs are both on the line

SF-leaning wing of FF may get rid of Martin, while threats loom for Taoiseach

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar: party members could turn on him and back Simon Coveney as leader. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin are not just competing with each other for the Taoiseach’s office in this election campaign. They are both fighting for their political lives as the outcome will determine whether they can survive as leaders of their respective parties.

Martin took a courageous risk in Wednesday night’s televised leader’s debate by declaring that he would not go into coalition with Sinn Féin as it was a “moral question” of agreeing to share power with a party which continues to justify the murderous campaign of the Provisional IRA.

He needed to be that emphatic because there has been growing speculation in political circles since the publication of The Irish Times Ipsos MRBI poll earlier in the week that the next government could well be a coalition between Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin.

The aggressive nationalism of the Haughey era is still alive and well in Fianna Fáil

More to the point there have been strong signals within Fianna Fáil that many TDs, councillors and party supporters are quite happy with the notion of a coalition with Sinn Féin if the election outcome is anything like the poll suggests and the two parties have the numbers to form a government.

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The vitriolic reaction of so many Fianna Fáil TDs and councillors to the attempt by Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan to organise a commemoration for the policemen of the Royal Irish Constabulary and Dublin Metropolitan Police who were killed during the War of Independence was an ominous development.

It indicated that the aggressive nationalism of the Haughey era is still alive and well in the party.

The emotive rhetoric used by the Fianna Fáil objectors to any form of commemoration for the members of the RIC and DMP chimed with that used by Sinn Féin.

It indicated that many in both parties share a view of the past which runs counter to the efforts at inclusivity which have characterised the Decade of Commemorations to date.

Expressions of outrage

It was notable that senior Fianna Fáil figures like justice spokesman Jim O’Callaghan and former minister Éamon Ó Cuív led the expressions of outrage which were echoed by party candidates up and down the country. If prominent Fianna Fáil figures like them share Sinn Féin’s view of the past, it will not be a big step for them to come together in the present.

That is why it was so important for Martin’s authority to reiterate the moral basis of his objection to coalition with Sinn Féin rather than simply mouthing platitudes about policy differences between the two parties. Still, he is likely to face serious pressure from elements of his party if the election outcome gives Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin enough seats to form a government.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin: strong signals within party many TDs, councillors and supporters are happy with the notion of a coalition with Sinn Féin. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

Martin’s clear preference is to go into coalition with the Labour Party and the Greens but on the basis of the Irish Times poll that combination will be far short of the numbers required to form a stable government. In that situation, the Sinn Féin-leaning wing of his party might well try and depose Martin if he stands in the way of their taking office.

The election outcome could also pose a threat to Leo Varadkar’s continuing leadership. Party rules oblige him to put himself forward for a renewed mandate from his party colleagues if he is no longer in government after the election – and if the result is really bad he could be in trouble.

Coveney’s prospects

Varadkar won the backing of his parliamentary party by a two-to-one majority in 2017 on the basis that he was the best bet to help them retain their seats. If that calculation turns out to be wrong, the survivors could turn on him. Remember that Simon Coveney was the clear winner among the party members and is regarded by many of them as the leader in waiting.

What will be crucial for Varadkar’s future will be whether the party can survive the election in reasonable shape, whether or not it remains in office. There is a wide acknowledgment that he is facing an uphill battle, so if Fine Gael has a respectable outcome even if it ends up in opposition he should get another chance. If it turns into a rout, it will be a different matter.

Varadkar needs to recover lost ground in the second half of the campaign. He made a reasonable fist of his first television debate but will need to perform even better in the remaining debates to inspire a turnaround.

One of his supporters summed up the situation thus: “If this was a hurling match you’d have to say we’re a few points down at half-time but remember the score can change very quickly in hurling. We have the better team but they have to up their performance.”

It does need to be remembered that the first poll of the campaign was a measurement of where all the parties stood before the match really got going and the balance of advantage may well inevitably shift during the course of the campaign. Still, it did suggest the shape of the next government will be determined by the final strength of the three big parties. Unless there is a big change by polling day, Varadkar and Martin will have to find some way to hang together if they want to avoid hanging separately.