Jack Chambers: Fianna Fáil members ‘fear’ and ‘reject’ Sinn Féin, making coalition unlikely

The ‘super junior’ minister will ‘consider’ leadership bid when Michéal Martin steps aside

Fianna Fáil Minister of State Jack Chambers has said he does not expect his party to go into coalition with Sinn Féin as its grassroots “fear” and “reject” Mary Lou McDonald’s party. In a pre-Christmas interview, the Fianna Fáil super junior minister attacked Sinn Féin and strongly downplayed the prospect of a coalition of the two parties.

“Most party members I speak with fear Sinn Féin, reject Sinn Féin and would find it very difficult to go into government with Sinn Féin – and I don’t expect we will be in government with Sinn Féin after the next election because there’s very little common ground.”

While commentators have suggested that a Fianna Fáil-Sinn Féin coalition may be one of the only stable coalition options after the next election, the Dublin West TD dismissed Sinn Féin’s approach to a range of policy areas from enterprise and tax policy to North/South issues, accusing it of “swinging from the far left to the far right”.

“It’s a policy of exploitation and division that puts populism over a more practical approach,” he said, arguing that the party constantly pushes a “more divisive rhetoric”, including on migration. However, in the week before his comments two Fianna Fáil councillors had stirred controversy for their contributions on Government migration policy following a suspected arson attack in Co Galway – which Chambers described as “unacceptable”.


He said there was “very little common crossover” between the Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil, meaning there was very little scope for a programme for government emerging, and if one did there was limited space for that to be put to the party membership.

Following comments by McDonald on the need for average house prices to come down to around €300,000 in Dublin, he accused her of “chucking figures around to grab a headline without any real policy thought behind it”.

Chambers – now Minister of State for Transport and Environment, attending Cabinet – was said to have been disappointed when coalition leaders plumped for minimal changes around the Cabinet table when Leo Varadkar resumed as head of government. However, he insists that he respected the three leaders’ prerogative to decide their team and make a call on “continuity and stability” – certainly if he feels bruised by the absence of a full Cabinet portfolio he has been diplomatic about it, and is seen as extremely close to the current leadership and fully subscribed to the project of returning Micheál Martin as taoiseach for a second time.

However, he concedes that all politicians have ambition and clearly signals that includes an interest, ultimately in the leadership of Fianna Fáil. “Down the road, whenever that time comes, I’ll absolutely consider it,” he says.

In the meantime, facing the highest number of road deaths in almost a decade, Chambers, whose brief is Road Transport and Logistics, has busied himself with a slew of new legislation – most recently securing Cabinet approval to lower default speed limits in built-up areas, on national secondary roads and on local roads, as well as closing loopholes in existing legislation which allow drivers avoid harsher penalties by accepting disqualifications as short as one day.

Tighter drug testing, including at the scene of accidents, and the application of multiple penalty points have also been progressed, although a plan to increase penalty points on bank holidays has stalled.

He is also promising a strategy in 2024 for widespread camera use on the roads, with breaches of bus lane use, breaking red lights and other offences currently only being policed “if there happens to be a guard there”. Cameras, including average speed cameras, will enable a “wider culture of compliance which will only be upheld if we embrace technology and camera-based enforcement at scale which is happening in pretty much every other European country”.

Chambers is also promising changes to the driving test, the curriculum for which is 30 years old, and “out of kilter with the modern driving experience”. A review of the curriculum is under way and is expected to complete in 2024, with changes planned thereafter by Chambers if he is still in position.

Notwithstanding all this activity veteran observers of roads policy privately say adhering closely to the basics rather than appending endless new powers is the route to bringing down road deaths – most importantly increasing the number of visible gardaí on the roads – something Chambers concedes “is an issue”.

“Enforcement, we know, is a central factor in deterrence and wider driver behaviour. People’s perception of enforcement underpins all other reforms,” he says.

Put simply, a driver’s belief that they are less likely to meet a garda on the road is among the most important factors. Does he think people perceive they are less likely now to meet a road traffic garda?

“I think they do,” he says. “There is a perception that enforcement isn’t what it should be. Enforcement isn’t at a level of strength that it should be and it needs to improve, and I have been explicit about that with the (Garda) commissioner and working with the Minister for Justice as well.”

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Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times