Daniel McConnell: Change of heart from a leader on his last chance

Daniel McConnell: Change of heart from a leader on his last chance

Four weeks ago today, the people went to the polls and give their verdict as to who deserves the right to govern the country.

Unfortunately, that verdict on February 8 was decidedly indecisive.

The big lie perpetuated in the days after the 160 seats of the 33rd Dáil were filled was that one party, namely Sinn Féin, had won the election.

It did not, and the reality of that lie was exposed by the lack of a vote for Taoiseach when the Dáil met for the second time on Thursday.

No party won the election, but there were plenty of losers.

The biggest two were Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin.

Before the election, Martin’s party was tipped to win up to 60 seats, but came back with just 38.

He failed to convince the public that he, a lifelong politician, was an agent of change. His party suffered from an effective social media “vote left, stay left” campaign in the last days of the campaign, which saw his middle and lower-order TDs decimated.

Varadkar, whose party began the 2016 term with 50 seats, stands with just 35, down from the 76 they held in 2011.

What we have had over the past four weeks has been a painfully slow sham, where parties have done no more than exchange broad policy ideas. But the fundamental reality has not changed since election weekend.

For a majority government to be formed, two of the three now medium-sized parties (Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil, and Fine Gael) need to combine and do a deal and bring in the Greens or enough independents.

In the immediate aftermath of the election weekend, perhaps reeling from his defeat, Martin had initially signalled a willingness to speak to Sinn Féin. But that stance was quickly abandoned after the likes of Michael McGrath and Jim O’Callaghan cried foul.

Since then, both Varadkar and Martin have doubled down on their insistence that no deal with Mary Lou McDonald is possible.

After a day of talks between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, finally some progress emerged. Martin went on the national airwaves and made clear he is ready for a full coalition deal with Fine Gael, and did not even rule out the idea of rotating the position of taoiseach with Varadkar.

Martin told RTÉ’s Today with Seán O’Rourke show that yes, he was prepared to enter a coalition with Fine Gael if a programme for government was agreed.

Having previously ruled out such an arrangement both in 2016 and initially after this election, Martin’s shift in position was significant in the process of forming a government.

Crucially, Martin said the time has come to look past a repeat of the confidence and supply arrangement, which saw his party facilitate a Fine Gael-led government from the opposition benches.

He accepted when it was put to him that the only viable option is a full coalition and said he was open to considering a deal with Fine Gael“depending on a programme of government that works and represents a new direction in terms of housing, health, and climate change”.

Asked about the idea of rotating the position of taoiseach with Varadkar, he said: “I am not ruling anything in or out.”

Martin said the process of forming a government need not take the same length of time as it did in 2016, when it took 74 days.

“Whatever happens, there needs to be a new direction. Fianna Fáil cannot be business as usual; there is a mandate for change,” he said.

Martin said that nothing he had heard back from the talks with Fine Gael was insurmountable. He said he wanted to negotiate a programme for government that would last five years.

“A government will be formed; the other political parties need to make decisions,” he said. “There is no pathway to opposition,” he said. “A left-wing alliance is not going to materialise.”

Martin said he was not afraid of another election in the event that there was a failure to form a government Fianna Fáil had come very close to winning more seats in a number of constituencies.

This was certainly a different message to what Martin and his party were communicating just days before polling. At that point, he ruled out a “grand coalition” with Fine Gael after the election.

He said the country needed a “completely new government”without Varadkar’s party.

His comments came after Varadkar suggested that he might countenance working with Fianna Fáil in government if the election produced another inconclusive result.

“People want change, that’s the message we’re receiving,” Martin said at the time. “They want Fine Gael out of office and we’ve made it very clear we want to go into government with other centre parties. Clearly Labour and the Greens are the ones we’d be interested going into government with, but that’s to be determined by the people.

“Fine Gael need to come out of government. They’ve been there too long; they haven’t delivered on key issues such as housing. The people want a new government — that means a completely new government,” he said.

So why the big change of heart?

Largely, it is because he is a leader running short on options.Despite his party finishing with the most seats, Martin has shown a remarkable lack of desire to assert himself in recent weeks.

The McGrath/O’Callaghan rebellion on the Sinn Féin issue was an indication of just how precarious Martin’s position as leader really is. Another indication of how dicey his leadership is was the backlash he faced at his own parliamentary party meeting at Leinster House on Thursday.

The meeting heard strident criticism of his approach to forming a government. Many Fianna Fáil TDs voiced criticism of Martin’s approach, with some TDs furious at his haste in shutting the door to Sinn Féin.

According to those present, the unhappiness was not contained to those who are usually opposed to the Cork South-Central TD.

During the meeting “where sparks flew” there was criticism of his repeated attacks on Mary Lou McDonald’s party.

Martin was said to be particularly angry about Longford-Westmeath TD Robert Troy criticising his repeated claim that “shadowy” unelected figures run Sinn Féin, with Troy making the point that Fianna Fáil also has unelected advisory figures making key decisions.

With Sinn Féin’s desire for a left-wing coalition virtually impossible to achieve, the only other option, if a second election is to be avoided, is the grand coalition option, with Fine Gael with others tagged on.

Unlike Varadkar, who is not facing any threat to his position as leader,despite a bad election, Martin is on his last chance to make it to the taoiseach’s office. There is a visible sense of desperation from the man who does not want to be the only Fianna Fáil leader not to hold the top job.

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