Taoiseach talks up his Brexit team in preparation for general election

Taoiseach talks up his Brexit team in preparation for general election

Strike me down if politicians of all hues have not been dusting down their puffy polar coats and sufficiently warm head gear that manages to look vaguely presentable while keeping at bay the worst of mid-winter Ireland.

Of course, November will not yet be actual winter but tell that to your frozen toes and chattering teeth and your rain-dampened leaflets trumpeting all sorts of magnificent personal achievements. The high winds can wreak havoc with those posters as well.

Needless to say, there are far better months to be turning up on people’s doorsteps to ask them to vote for you, but right now it does feel as if we are a country in need of a general election.

For more than three years now we’ve been led by someone else’s agenda in terms of responding to the British vote to leave the EU. It’s easy to conclude that far more Irish people have tuned into the proceedings at Westminster rather than into Leinster House in recent times; that more could put a name to Speaker of the House John Bercow than our own, very effective, Ceann Comhairle, Sean Ó Fearghaíl.

Our political system in general has responded well and responsibly to the Brexit challenge. We have had no choice in this but to engage fully in order to protect Ireland’s interests.

The pace has been relentless, not least for the individuals involved in trying to keep on top of everything, particularly Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney who deserves the freedom of every county in Ireland for his efforts to date.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar hasn’t been behind the door in all of this either. He has very good standing in EU circles for his conduct during these crazy political times. The point being that if there is an extension granted to the UK, from a Fine Gael point of view, there is a strong argument that this could be as good as it gets in terms of touting its Brexit competence.

A brief extension granted to the UK by the EU does not make much sense in terms of allowing enough time to sort anything meaningful out, although the temptation to take that approach would be huge in terms of just wanting an end in sight to this increasingly crazy situation.

In the event that was the decision, and we were to have a November election here, that could allow Fine Gael to put up in lights its hard-won competence around the EU table — first-name terms with everyone, detailed knowledge of the issues, knowing the bottom lines — you get the drift.

There would be lots of talk of the ongoing uncertainty and the possibility of upcoming intense talks ahead of a new deadline. In the uncertain land that is Brexit, this could be as much certainty as could ever be had between now and whenever. Even if a decision is made in the UK to have a second Brexit referendum, that could take up to six months — and that is an optimistic estimate. Recent history would tell us this would be unlikely to be the case.

In the course of his speech to the Fine Gael presidential dinner last weekend, the Taoiseach gave a flavour of this approach when he touted the talents of his “people” in this area.

“If we had a Fianna Fáil-led Government now and they were involved in Brexit negotiations now who could they send who could match Simon Coveney or Helen McEntee?” he told the Fine Gael faithful.

Interesting, as an aside, to notice how often he mentions his “team” these days, not just on Brexit. That night, he also gave a great shout out to Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe. The days of Leo being seen to carry a general election virtually on his own are in the rearview mirror. Now he likes to remind us of the various strengths of those around him who make up the Fine Gael Cabinet team.

“We have the team, we have the ideas, and we have the track record” was just one line from the speech, which would fit so handily on general election literature or on a social media post.

But how will people respond to that when we stop to have that all important and much needed electoral reflection on what we think of the state of our own country. What will we find when we reflect inwards on the things that matter to us, how the health service is being run, or how the housing crisis is being dealt with — how will Fine Gael be judged in the round.

On the first day back of the Dail term, after the summer recess, the Taoiseach said that there wasn’t a “cigarette paper” between himself and Donohoe when it comes to economic policy or himself and Coveney on Brexit.

The same could be said between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, practically neck and neck in the opinion polls, a hare’s breath seemingly between them. But what Fianna Fáil does not have is coming up on a decade of the “baggage” of being in government. During any election campaign, Fine Gael is going to be the subject of an almighty pile-on from all others on its record on housing and health.

Sure they will attempt to retaliate by reminding everyone of Fianna Fáil’s role in the economic crash. They’d be correct in that, but at this point for many it has lost the sting it once had with the passage of time.

But add to that the poorness of Fine Gael’s record on those twin areas of health and housing.

Where Fine Gael have genuine credibility and an electoral edge is how Brexit-savvy it is — do you want a team which is match fit, used to eyeballing the opposite team, and appears to have a warm and supportive relationship with the match officials, or one that has been essentially supporting and spectating from a distance?

It is not an easy call, especially since the Taoiseach has publicly said May for an election, and the decision lies on his shoulders alone. But the temptation right now must be huge to go to the country sooner rather than later.

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