Daniel McConnell: Could Jim fix woes of Fianna Fáil as its next leader?

While he is keen to reject any suggestions of seeking to move against his party leader, it would be foolish to dismiss his activities as anything other than positioning himself to succeed Martin — when the time comes, of course 
Daniel McConnell: Could Jim fix woes of Fianna Fáil as its next leader?

Fianna Fáil's Jim O'Callaghan. The change of leader does not need to mean a general election and indeed given Leo Varadkar’s difficulties at present, it is feasible to suggest we could see a double leadership change and for the Government to remain standing for the full term.

Over the past 10 days, there has been a noticeable escalation in the activity of one Jim O’Callaghan.

Yes, he, the lowly backbench TD, former Ireland rugby international and senior counsel, who eschewed the chance of serving as junior justice minister because he saw it as a “limited role”.

Yes, he who was a shock omission from Micheál Martin’s original Cabinet line-up, having been a loyal lieutenant to the boss since his arrival in the Dáil in 2016.

Firstly this week, O’Callaghan released a glossy video decrying the impact of the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, calling for sanctions to be levied on Brazilian premier Jair Bolsonaro, who he accused of committing “eco-terrorism”. His own Government dismissed his calls for sanctions, but no harm for the TDs in the affluent and green-conscious areas of Rathgar and Sandymount to hear his take on the issue.

O’Callaghan’s supporters say it is not just about minding his base in Dublin Bay South, but is also a clear attempt to connect to younger and
climate-conscious voters, who have abandoned Fianna Fáil in droves.

The second and probably more important topic O’Callaghan spoke on this week was the issue of a united Ireland and his vision as to how that can be achieved.

In a speech delivered to his alma mater, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, O’Callaghan said a new constitution would be needed and warned that a border poll held before the end of the decade could be rejected by people in the Republic unless detailed preparations are made.

Coming in the same week as Monday’s Claire Byrne Live special in which the Taoiseach, Tánaiste, and leader of the opposition all appeared, O’Callaghan’s address was attended virtually by several hundred people.

He set out his plan for how a reunified Ireland could function, with proposals for a new constitution and a bicameral parliamentary system with one house in Dublin and another in Belfast.

A united Ireland would be part of the EU and the eurozone and the Republic’s current 12.5% corporation tax rate would be adopted. Unionists would get a certain number of cabinet positions, he said. He snubbed the idea of joining the British Commonwealth, saying it would be a meaningless sop to unionists

At the weekly meeting of the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party, O’Callaghan’s was a leading voice, not just for scrapping the 5km travel limit but also for a clear, definitive road map as to when other restrictions will be lifted in the months ahead.

Then on Thursday came the Facebook notification that “Jim O’Callaghan TD has updated their website address”. This new site, with a strong
emphasis on “Jim”, as opposed to his surname, is presidential in tone.

I spoke with O’Callaghan for this piece. He responded: “I think it is important that Fianna Fáil continues to put forward interesting and challenging policy proposals. There is a responsibility on all TDs to do so, particularly those of us who are not preoccupied with Government portfolios.”

On the issues he raised in recent days, he said lots of people are talking about a new Ireland and Irish reunification, and Fianna Fáil needs to be at the centre of that discussion.

“We have a fantastic record when it comes to achieving and maintaining peace on the island,” he said.

“The failure of the world to respond to the irreparable damage being caused to our eco-system by the continuous burning of the Amazon is also an issue that Fianna Fáil can and should champion.”

In isolation, such matters would mean little and are part and parcel of the life of all politicians.

But O’Callaghan is no mere backbencher. Such a reality means his movements are closely watched.

While he is keen to reject any suggestions of seeking to move against his party leader, it would be foolish to dismiss his activities as anything other than positioning himself to succeed Martin — when the time comes, of course 

Within the party, a small group of TDs has gravitated around O’Callaghan, including Dublin South West TD John Lahart, Tipperary TD Jackie Cahill, and, interestingly, former minister Barry Cowen, who has made it clear he has no leadership ambitions at this stage.

Taoiseach Micheal Martin TD: O'Callaghan is presenting himself as the anti-Micheál — engaging, listening to backbench concerns, and willing to challenge Nphet rather than slavishly following its lead.
Taoiseach Micheal Martin TD: O'Callaghan is presenting himself as the anti-Micheál — engaging, listening to backbench concerns, and willing to challenge Nphet rather than slavishly following its lead.

Having previously declared his interest in becoming leader, O’Callaghan has, according to TDs, been having plenty of coffees with colleagues.

He is presenting himself as the anti-Micheál — engaging, listening to backbench concerns, and willing to challenge Nphet rather than slavishly following its lead.

Such groundwork is crucial in any potential campaign for the leadership.

Assessing the mood among Fianna Fáil’s 36 TDs and 20 senators, there is no immediate desire to oust Martin as leader, with many seeing the handover of power in December 2022 as the ideal point for him to bow out with dignity. O’Callaghan is one of two clear contenders lining themselves up to replace Martin as leader of Fianna Fáil.

Yes, I said two contenders — O’Callaghan and Public Expenditure Minister Michael McGrath.

Any other pretender, namely Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien, despite making shapes, does not have a body of support sufficient to mount a viable challenge, current evidence suggests.

Hostile takeover

McGrath, despite having a more than healthy rivalry with his party leader, with whom he shares the Cork South Central constituency, would want an orderly transition as opposed to a hostile takeover.

Minister Michael McGrath is a contender for leadership of Fianna Fáil.
Minister Michael McGrath is a contender for leadership of Fianna Fáil.

In a hostile takeover, he would be forced to back Martin, only then to seek to stake his claim for the leadership.

Being the aggressor and agitator suits O’Callaghan and allows him to dictate the pace much more than if he were in Cabinet.

Having suffered a heavy reversal in the 2020 General Election and having been forced to do a deal with the old enemy in Fine Gael to achieve that mantle of power, Fianna Fáil is a wounded entity. Although Martin is slated to be Taoiseach for another 18 months, attention is already shifting to what comes after that.

The change of leader does not need to mean a general election and indeed given Leo Varadkar’s difficulties at present, it is feasible to suggest we could see a double leadership change and for the Government to remain standing for the full term.

Fine Gael showed in 2017 that an orderly transition can happen without the sky falling in. Can Fianna Fáil do the same, or will we see a return of the deeply divisive battles for supremacy that dogged the party for decades?

Either way, Jim O’Callaghan will be in the middle of the scrum.

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