There is a time for everything, unless you’re delaying an election

At The Old Thatch pub in Killeagh, Co Cork, from left, Fianna Fail Local Election Candidate Cork East James O'Connor with Fianna Fail Leader Micheal Martin TD and Proprietor Brian Barry. Picture: Tony O'Connell.

Time and the exactitude of timings are often the defining elements in politics. At the start of a government, all seems possible. If a government is being re-elected, the stress of the election and of the build-up to it can lead to a slackening in its aftermath.

The fact of being re-elected to your seat and, if fortunate, of being re-ensconced in ministerial office, dulls political energy, especially the energy required for change.

The newly-elected are naive enough not to know that what is not done in the first six months or the first year will likely never be done.

Bold manoeuvres require peak political fitness and being able to face down the lack of morale in your opposition, which only comes once, in the aftermath of their defeat.

This Government, unlike any other I recall, has permanently been in the run-up to an election that has never occurred. It mightn’t happen for some time now, either.

Delaying Brexit again, until Halloween, approaches a scary moment for Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. It is possible, but it seems unlikely, that there will be a quick fix in Britain, and things will be tied up before the European elections on May 24. If so, the summer is a wide-open savannah for electioneering.

The Taoiseach could plan to be re-elected and re-ensconced before his summer holiday. The summer holiday after an election is the most relaxing in the political cycle.

Even the re-elected, but defeated, know it’s time to graze beside the watering hole.

If that’s an attractive scenario, it is also unlikely. The only agreement that seems possible in Britain, with Labour, would split the Conservative Party. Jeremy Corbyn can circumnavigate the issues, do enough and as little to discomfort Mrs May, while holding his own coalition together, and wait for his opponents to be immolated in the flames of Brexit.

So while it is possible, and things might change, an opening for an election here, before the summer, seems a slim hope for Varadkar. He could be brave, and go regardless.

I think his deeds are more cautious than his sometimes careless language, so probably not. That means waiting on any number of Brexit scenarios that might play out in the autumn, before the latest October deadline.

Powers of prophecy, as distinct from common punditry, would be required to see through that fog. Somebody always wins a bet on the Grand National, but I don’t feel that lucky today.

The context here, in September, is budget negotiation. Fianna Fáil has made it clear that it is willing and available to do business.

Presumably, there will be carefully-chosen fights, but there is absolutely no reason things can’t be agreed. Delivering a budget doesn’t necessarily lock the Taoiseach into government for the winter, which is exactly where Micheál Martin wants him. But all the while, time is passing, and opportunities narrowing.

There is an unknowable denouement on Brexit, where, either it hasn’t been agreed and there won’t be another delay, or it becomes delayed again.

And there is French president, Emmanuel Macron, who might not agree to any further delay at all, and, in circumstances where nothing is agreed, trigger a hard Brexit.

Then, a scary moment becomes a nightmare. Managing the end-of-life process, like landing the aeroplane, is the trickiest moment in government. Your closing speech has to be your best. Pulling apart the edifice of government here, in circumstances reeking of political opportunism, won’t end well.

Going to the country against the flaming backdrop of no-deal will unnerve every beast in the forest. Staying on for the winter, because you can’t get out, is a slow sapping of political capital.

It is the considerable achievement of Fianna Fáil, and of Micheál Martin, especially, to still be in existence, and seemingly now in contention. Confidence-and-supply will rank as the gold standard in masterly inactivity for years to come. I think they are in contention, but possibly unaware of, and unprepared for, the threat to come.

The longer Martin can hold Varadkar in government, the smaller the handicap he has on the day the election is called. The day after, however, he and his party will face a public inquisition, under strobe lights more intense than any they have faced since 2007.

Then, they were an unpopular incumbent government, fighting a rearguard action. It was because Fine Gael were deemed unready that an unloved Fianna Fáil came back into government.

The corollary is that the relentless test that Fine Gael and Enda Kenny faced, and failed, in 2007, now awaits Fianna Fáil. Peak-Leo may have passed, Fianna Fáil candidates in key constituencies may be better-placed than their national poll numbers indicate, but a fundamental questions remains: is Fianna Fáil an alternative government, in-waiting? Because the sum of the combined parts of the two big parties is significantly less, the stakes may be smaller. But at stake is the driving seat in the government formation process thereafter.

In 2007, a beleaguered Bertie Ahern succeeded in defining Enda Kenny in the one-on-one debate.

In 2016, Fianna Fáil were so far back in the field no such debate occurred, and, instead, a jumble of four leaders slugged it out, fairly pointlessly. Martin needs the framing of a one-on-one debate with Varadkar, but he can’t be certain he’ll get it and Varadkar can be good on television.

Down the field, the challenge deepens. Over-confidence and an innate ability to be overweening may temper the advantage of the Government, but stretches of the Fianna Fáil front bench are conspicuously weak.

That is compounded by a sense of a team that frequently doesn’t exist outside the frame of the obligatory photograph.

Martin has surprised his detractors with his stamina, but among his elected colleagues, there is little cohesion, and sometimes a marked absence of affection.

It was always thus to an extent, but things will be tested. Policies will be relentlessly examined. Having a go won’t get you far. All of which is to say that time generally — and Brexit and its timings, especially — influences when, and in what circumstances, we have an election.

Becoming contenders again put Fianna Fáil up for a test most of them have never faced, and seemingly don’t realise is coming. For Martin, a surplus of singularity over collegiality may work in opposition, but elections require marshalling numbers across the airwaves, in and out of television studios and through the questioning glare of the media and public alike.

The past economic crash will be raked up. It is true what Fianna Fáil say about the election being closer than national polls indicate. That is precisely the reason they are closer to the tip of a red-hot poker than they realise.

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