Massive year ahead for Micheál Martin and his Soldiers of Destiny

Has Fianna Fáil become too domesticated? Has the party changed from a wily electoral beast, with a sixth survival sense, to one that is content to sit in front of a warm confidence and supply fire, and lap on the saucer of warm milk kindly supplied by Fine Gael? This year will give us the answer to that, writes Alison O’Connor.

Massive year ahead for Micheál Martin and his Soldiers of Destiny

You’d have to suspect that while they’ve endured, possibly even enjoyed, the little bit of political languishing of late the sense of threat presented by the recent Fine Gael momentum will soon, if not already, have the party back in harness.

It will have been an interesting festive season as the party, under Micheál Martin, attempts to work out how best to progress as a succession of recent opinion polls indicate that people are increasingly liking the cut of Leo Varadkar’s jib. The space between the two parties is opening up. The latest of those, the Ireland Thinks poll for the Daily Mail, had Fine Gael on 33%, with Fianna Fail at 26%.

In hindsight the Taoiseach must see that a general election in the run up to Christmas would not have been his best idea ever, but those opinion poll figures will certainly have given his already healthily confident political ego a significant boost, and provided lots of election temptation.

You could spend days examining the whys and the wherefores, and easily surmise that the two parties — Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael — could end up in broadly similar positions post an election. There is also Brexit, and the fairly sound reasoning that what we need, as we attempt to keep the British on track, is domestic political stability. But the same argument was used as a reason to keep Enda Kenny as Taoiseach and as we’ve seen times simply move on.

The bottom line here is that Fianna Fáil is not going to continue to sit back in a supporting role and watch the other crowd steal a march. It was for this very reason that Fine Gael elected Leo Varadkar believing that he would bring much needed sparkle to a party that was coming across as stale.

There is a freshness in the FG line up with political leaders closer to their 40s than official retirement age as we had become so used to — beginning with the Taoiseach, his Tánaiste Simon Coveney, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe, Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy, Health Minister Simon Harris, Culture Minister Josepha Madigan, and Minister for European Affairs Helen McEntee.

It was funny to read this week that British magazine Country Life has declared that in 2018 true gentlemen should make a statement with colourful socks and “let their ankles do the talking”. So for all the sock disdain shown it turns out that Leo was actually ahead of the fashion curve on this matter. The magazine printed a guide advising men how their choice of vibrant colour may influence the way they will be perceived, for instance red socks mark a man out as a “challenger to Casanova” as well as “sharp in the boardroom”, while mustard identifies wearers as homely types renowned for their “witty one-liners”.

Yes this is frivolous nonsense, but most people can be partial to a bit of nonsense, if they have enough of a feel good factor going on. The relative youth, the effort at street cred, the obvious intelligence, the youthful generation surrounding him, make for an interesting Varadkar mix.

That is not to ignore the complete hames the Taoiseach made of the Frances Fitzgerald email controversy, showing very questionable political judgement and appearing to ignore the obvious indicators that this was a time for a climbdown. While the Brexit success prior to Christmas did much to repair the immediate damage caused by that episode, the Taoiseach’s handling of that crisis left many of his colleagues worried.

So where lies the confidence and supply arrangement between the two parties? On the one hand you have Leo Varadkar saying he can see no reason why the agreement with Fianna Fáil can’t be extended past the next Budget. The arrangement between the two parties runs until the Budget next October.

However, Micheál Martin’s response in recent days showed he is operating off a different hymn sheet and wouldn’t be giving the Taoiseach “a blank cheque beyond and beyond” the next budget. He needed to see delivery on issues such as housing, health and justice. Under the terms of the agreement Fianna Fáil facilitates the backing of three budgets, the third of which is this year, but the arrangement could be extended after a review.

Whatever way you look at it, this confidence and supply cookie looks set to crumble in 2018. It is a massive year for Micheál Martin. If he is not elected Taoiseach following the next general election his time in political leadership is over. He has done an excellent job of rebuilding Fianna Fáil after the electoral disaster of 2011 and shown that his party is well capable of showing responsibility for the good of the country.

He will learn this year though if eaten bread is soon forgotten by voters. There must be comfort for him personally that even though his party is falling significantly behind Fine Gael in the polls his personal satisfaction rating remains high. He is a seriously impressive general election performer, but this time around it will far harder to shine when up against Leo Varadkar and Mary Lou McDonald as the new Sinn Féin leader.

But what matters ahead of all of that is Fianna Fáil shaking itself out of its confidence and supply induced lethargy, and regaining the momentum of being the main opposition party. It’s the time of year when everyone thinks about getting back into shape and this party needs to get its edge back. It will mean proper hard work on the part of a frontbench that has coasted along for quite some time now.

The party has been hamstrung by the confidence and supply arrangement and there are times when that seemed downright bizarre. A classic recent example was hearing a robust defence from front bench spokesman Dara Calleary as to why Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan should not be pursued for his part in the McCabe email controversy. This was the day after Frances Fitzgerald’s resignation from the Cabinet.

So the move is on. Timing will be everything in terms of the calling of a general election, but first Fianna Fáil will need to show us that it still has what it takes.

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