How does Fianna Fáil solve the problem of Micheál Martin?
Their leader is facing a Hobson’s choice at the next general election: form the grand coalition with the old enemy, Fine Gael, or move on.
Last weekend, Martin, once again, ruled out any prospect of a pact or a deal with Sinn Féin, despite it being the only other realistic option of forming a government.
Martin used a commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Éamon de Valera’s election to the House of Commons, in a famous by-election, to attack Sinn Féin.
He said Fianna Fáil should always challenge what he called Sinn Féin’s “cynicism and hypocrisies”.
“The party which, today, uses the name Sinn Féin, has nothing to do with the Sinn Féin which Éamon de Valera so triumphantly led to victory,” he said.
“They are a party founded in 1971, which has never ceased in an effort to try to distort history in the service of an illegitimate campaign rejected, time and again, by the Irish people.”
He said the party led by Gerry Adams “maintain the hypocrisy of claiming the revolutionary Sinn Féin, while ignoring” most of its leaders.
“They actually held a centenary celebration of the founding of Sinn Féin without mentioning its founder, or the only Sinn Féin leader who ever won the support of the Irish people,” he said, of the East Clare by-election of 1917, in which de Valera was elected, following his release from detention by the British, after the 1916 Rising.
“This is an event proudly organised by the party founded by Éamon de Valera, but, let no one be in any doubt, we are not claiming the by-election victory and its significance for Fianna Fáil.
“The history of the Irish revolution belongs to no party. We have no difficulty in recognising that many who contributed to this victory took other paths. We are here today because we want to show our respect and recognition of this great event.”
Martin restated his determination not to enter government with Sinn Féin after the next election.
Asked if his commitment would hold under any circumstances, he replied, “Yeah, we’ve made that clear.”
Many people in Fianna Fáil undoubtedly agree with Martin’s view of Sinn Féin and would not want to consider any deal, but there are plenty, including many of his chief lieutenants, who would gladly do a deal with Sinn Féin, if it meant being in government.
They have argued, to me, in recent days, that there would be a dual benefit.
Firstly, while many in the party have been content to remain in opposition since 2011, there is no appetite to remain on the sidelines any longer.
“We have been in opposition long enough now. We are ready to get stuck in, now, so we can’t be overly choosy about who we do it with. Saying no to Sinn Féin is not tenable,” said one senior Fianna Fáil TD.
The second benefit of considering Sinn Féin is that it will end their arch, populist criticisms from the safety of opposition.
“You put them in to shut them up,” said another TD.
Martin has done a decent job of reversing the fortunes of Fianna Fáil, since its devastating defeat in the general election of 2011, but he is not the complete leader, even still.
Even in recent times, his party’s stance on many key issues has been puzzling, muddled, and confusing.
The party’s latest march was up the mountain on the recent controversy over former attorney general, Máire Whelan’s appointment to the Court of Appeal. As a result, the party opened itself up to ridicule as to its credibility.
According to senior party figures, Jim O’Callaghan, Fianna Fáil’s justice spokesman, had been on a solo run in saying the appointment was a surprise and did call into question the confidence-and-supply agreement.
“He went too far and, as a lawyer, he is probably used to finessing his argument in court. But you can’t finesse your argument in a 15-second clip on the Six One News,” said his colleague.
But, to much annoyance, O’Callaghan’s wings were not clipped by Martin, who appears willing to forgive his legal man.
“There is unease, from our members, at us marching up the hill so often and coming back down with nothing to show for it. Sooner or later, we will have to do more than talk about pulling the plug,” said the source.
From speaking to several party members, the deep sense of unease, throughout the party, at the 15-month-old confidence-and-supply arrangement — which commits Fianna Fáil to not blocking three budgets — has led the party into a cul-de-sac of populism and angst.
After several threats to withdraw their support and then stopping short of actually doing so, they have become the boys who cried wolf.
But also, the party’s stance on water charges has caused considerable concern within the ranks, with many rural TDs (who pay for water through group schemes) furious at an overly Dublin-centric policy, which they deem to be shameless populism.
So, if it is not to be Sinn Féin, then it will have to be Fine Gael, if current poll ratings largely persist until the election.
While the public have been somewhat willing to forgive them for not doing the deal last year, they will not easily let them away with it next time.
A union between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil was a realistic option for stable government last time, and, in fairness to Fine Gael, they did put it on the table, not once, not twice, but thrice.
Brian Hayes, the Fine Gael MEP, has broken ranks in calling for the two parties to form a government next time around.
“That requires a majority in the Dáil over a five-year period. Both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, under their current leadership, will not enter a coalition with Sinn Féin. Without Sinn Féin, the only logical centre ground government has to be FG/FF, in a grand coalition for a five-year term.
“I believe such a government could make the right choices for the next generation, sure in the knowledge that they would have a working majority in the Dáil.
“It works in other countries; it can work here,” said Hayes.
Given Hayes’ close links to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, some believe he was speaking out on orders from his new boss to test the waters.
Such comments have been well-received by many in Fianna Fáil whom I have spoken to in recent days, and who are more than happy to consider it.
They are also buoyed by the fact that the two parties now have 60% of the overall vote between them, which is up more than 10 points on the general election.
This could be seen as the centre ground consolidating at the expense of the independents.
Hayes called for the two parties to control the centre. The question is whether Micheál is ready to play his part.
If he is not, he may be the one who loses out.