Daniel McConnell: General election will be a personality contest

Who do you want to be Taoiseach — Leo or Micheál?

Daniel McConnell: General election will be a personality contest

Who do you want to be Taoiseach — Leo or Micheál?

Notwithstanding the posturing and the shadow boxing between the two leaders, the starting pistol on Election 2020 has been fired.

And we are facing into the most presidential, personalised general election campaign in Irish history and the two leaders will be the focus.

This goes far beyond the fact that both have agreed, it seems, to face off in at least one head-to-head TV debate. It reflects the fact that for the first time since 2007, there is a genuine contest as to who will be Taoiseach.

In 2011, Martin had just assumed the mantle of Fianna Fáil leader, so could not take the blame for his party’s disastrous collapse in that year’s election. His party, despite some trying times, did far better than expected in 2016, when it more than doubled its Dáil seat total to 44.

Upon becoming ceann comhairle, Sean Ó Fearghaíl reduced their number by one, but, on foot of by-elections and the addition of Stephen Donnelly, the party now has 45 TDs.

Martin, in a similar fashion to Enda Kenny before him, can point to his record of increasing his party’s seat numbers at local, Dáil, and European level at each election. Election 2020 is his third campaign as leader and, despite his improved fortune, is his last chance to ascend to the promised land of the office of Taoiseach.

Martin, who is sensitive to criticism and not universally loved by his own party, has shown considerable staying power, and courage, as leader.

He forced the removal of his old boss, Bertie Ahern, from the party, in the wake of the Mahon Tribunal in 2014; he stood against the majority of his party, when he backed the Government’s proposal to liberalise the country’s abortion laws; and he has, despite much internal criticism, stayed true and loyal to the confidence-and-supply deal.

The major, and obvious, concern about Martin is that he sat at the Cabinet table for the 14 years of the Celtic Tiger and the crash, and the legacy of that national calamity can still be felt in many areas today.

Fianna Fáil busted the country, made life tangibly much worse for many, many people, and the crash polarised Irish politics.

Also, another large fear is that Fianna Fáil can’t help themselves and engage in shameless populism, as they did when they changed their position on water charges, in the run-up to the 2016 election.

In the Dáil since 1989, Martin has served at the top end of Irish politics for more than a quarter of a century and his experience has stood to him during many difficult scrapes. Whether the public has forgiven him sufficiently is likely to be one of the points of attack from Varadkar and Fine Gael.

Another major concern for Fianna Fáil is the continuing question mark over the strength of the team around Martin. It has often been said that he has been able to survive because there isn’t a clear alternative. But the appointment of Dara Calleary, as his deputy leader and main party organiser, has made the party more cohesive.

The assured performance of Michael McGrath, in the finance portfolio, over nine years, is a strength, and while Martin appears happy with Jim O’Callaghan and Barry Cowen, beyond that, it is less assured.

The Taoiseach, on the other hand, is untested, in terms of a general election, and faces his first major hurdle as leader of a party seeking a historic third term in office.

Varadkar, in his bid to become the leader of Fine Gael, promised a new kind of party to the one that had been run by Kenny since 2002. Varadkar has always blazed a trail, since his arrival in the Dáil in 2007, ruffling feathers along the way.

Early on, he attacked the then embattled Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, saying he was “no Sean Lemass... you’re a Garrett FitzGerald. You’ve doubled the national debt.”

The comment went down like a lead balloon among his own. He was involved in the disastrous heave against Kenny in 2010 and, before the 2011 election, said the banks would not get another red cent, only for them to be capitalised within weeks of Fine Gael taking office.

But he won considerable praise, except from Alan Shatter, when he publicly backed whistleblowers Maurice McCabe and John Wilson in 2014, when his own government was less than supportive.

When Kenny’s departure was confirmed, in 2017, Varadkar, famously, said that he wanted to give a leg-up to those “people who get up early in the morning. When I talk about people who get up early in the morning... I mean lots of different types of people.... The coping class, the squeezed middle, middle Ireland... they should be our priority,” he said.

Clearly setting out his stall to attract the approximately 35% of people who are likely to vote for Fine Gael, during the hustings, Varadkar hit out at his rival, Simon Coveney’s touchy-feely approach, saying that the Cork man’s vision for the party was akin to “trying to be all things to all men, but, really, you end up being nothing to nobody.”

Fine Gael started this term with 50 TDs, having lost 26 in the 2016 election, but, through resignations and by-elections defeats, their number has fallen to 47.

With FG and FF virtually neck and neck in terms of Dáil seats, Varadkar has a tough sell in convincing people that his team is worthy of another shot at running the country.

A disastrous 2019 (broadband, children’s hospital, Maria Bailey, and the two Murphys) and a rocky start to 2020 have done little to bolster their argument.

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe had to restore some of his reputation following several kickings from the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council — and his highly cautious budget, in October, went some way to doing that.

But much of the posturing of the past week reflects just how high the stakes are for both Varadkar and Martin.

Varadkar has lived a charmed existence since 2011, and even if he is returned as Taoiseach, considerable pain lies ahead for him. Because of the quirks of confidence-and-supply, Fine Gael ended up with a disproportionate number of Cabinet seats, junior ministries, and committee chair positions. He would have to sack a lot of his own people, which will bring its own challenge.

Even worse than that is the prospect of a term or two in opposition, which can hardly be appealing.

As 2016 shows, campaigns do matter and both Varadkar and Martin know, only too well, that one slip-up could be the difference between winning and losing.

McGrath told me, in an interview over Christmas, that this promises to be the “nastiest” campaign and with so much on the line, his forecast looks very likely to become a reality.

May the best man win.

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