Daniel McConnell: National Development Plan row reveals tensions at heart of government

With both politicians under increasing pressure, the tolerance of Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar  for Eamon Ryan may soon run out, writes Political Editor Daniel McConnell
Daniel McConnell: National Development Plan row reveals tensions at heart of government

The Green Party has done a masterful job of stymieing the aspirations of many Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil TDs in terms of road projects. Photo: Julien Behal

At the end of the week which saw the publication of the National Development Plan (NDP), a number of things are now clear.

One, the Green Party has done a masterful job of stymieing the aspirations of many Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil TDs in terms of road projects. They didn’t kill them entirely, but they have made it impossible for the full list of projects contained in the NDP to be completed.

Former minister and Galway TD Éamon Ó Cuív, who served in Government with the Greens previously, was quick to spot what was happening. He accused Green Party leader Eamon Ryan of “strangling and choking” road projects with red tape in a bid to kill them off as he had done a decade ago.

The vagueness and lack of firm timelines contained in the report gave voice to the deep divisions within government in the run-up to the document’s publication.

The open question, particularly over road projects and major key projects such as Metrolink and the M20, plays into the hands of Ryan as Transport Minister who has huge and sweeping powers to stop and block any project he wants.

So rather than us all rejoicing in the fact that €165bn has been set aside for the next generation of infrastructure development in this country, with its soaring population, we are left baffled and confused as to how exactly that money will be spent.

Several Fine Gael ministers have conceded that they were left with little choice but to fudge the NDP document given the Greens’ refusal to commit fully to major road projects. But from the public’s perspective, the document is deeply disappointing given how vague and non-committal it is and rather than assuaging fears over critical projects, it has compounded them.

The palpable anger within the Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil parties to the role of the Greens has played out both behind the scenes in Leinster House and on the airwaves this week. Most notably with Cork East TD James O’Connor who took to his local radio station to threaten to resign what he called the neglect of his area in the NDP.

Coming as his party leader and Taoiseach Micheál Martin was out of the country, some of his own colleagues accused O’Connor of seeking to cause maximum damage.

But what was interesting was how quick Martin moved to quell the fire. Interrupting his schedule in Slovenia to call O’Connor, the Dáil’s youngest TD, Martin acceded to his request to a meeting within 24 hours. Without question, Martin did not want to lose another TD so soon after the decision of Sligo TD Marc MacSharry to resign the party whip over the Katherine Zappone controversy.

By acceding to O’Connor’s demand, Martin opened the door to TDs all over the country unhappy with the NDP to seek a similar sit-down. Some TDs said the speed with which Martin moved to confront O’Connor reflects how weak his own position as leader is.

Sinn Féin’s support in Munster now stands at a staggering 38%, compared to Fianna Fáil’s 25% with Fine Gael in fourth spot on 14%. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins Photos
Sinn Féin’s support in Munster now stands at a staggering 38%, compared to Fianna Fáil’s 25% with Fine Gael in fourth spot on 14%. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins Photos

But with a successful conclusion reached, by way of talking O’Connor down from the ledge, it can legitimately be argued that Martin was right to do so. O’Connor said he was happy to have gotten enough of a commitment from Martin and Ryan to remain within the tent.

He said he is confident the Government will give its full support to the rural road projects in his constituency. He is now happy that he has received the commitment and reassurance from Government that “rural road projects around the country will be getting the attention they deserve”, he said.

The weakness of Martin’s position, perceived and actual, is nothing new but a rocky period ahead between now and Christmas is set to test his mettle. In addition to Tuesday’s budget, difficult decisions on the pandemic bonus, Mica redress, and Ceta all have to be confronted and overcome.

This week’s latest poll in the IPSOS/MRBI Irish Times has heaped further pressure on Martin and Leo Varadkar with the full impact of the Zappone saga leading to serious drops in support for both of their parties, compared to Sinn Féin’s dominance.

For example, in Munster Sinn Féin’s support now stands at a staggering 38%, compared to Fianna Fáil’s 25% with Fine Gael in fourth spot on 14%. Fine Gael remains the most popular party in Dublin on 27% with Sinn Féin on 24% and Fianna Fáil way behind on just 16%.

Persistently poor ratings will see increased angst among government TDs, fearful that their seats are in jeopardy whose tolerance for defending government decisions will be tested. Such angst was evident at Wednesday’s Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting, where Tánaiste Leo Varadkar reportedly clashed with a number of his own TDs over budget spending promises.

According to my colleague Paul Hosford’s report, Varadkar hit out at his own TDs for buying into what he called a fake narrative that Fine Gael had shed its reputation for fiscal responsibility at what was called a “bad-tempered” meeting.

Former ministers Charlie Flanagan and Michael Creed, who Varadkar demoted after the last election, likened the party to some of the Dail’s most left-wing personalities.

TDs criticised what they called the lack of consultation by Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe with backbenchers over Tuesday’s budget. What was significant is that TDs are now talking about an “anti-Leo” wing within Fine Gael.

This is a sea change from 2017-2019 when Varadkar had as close to total control over his party as is possible. He certainly does not now and with him still under Garda investigation, he remains a weakened figure.

That the Greens appear to be making their presence felt on key occasions is adding to the irritation of the backbenchers who are demanding that Martin and Varadkar “put the Greens back in their box”. Such tensions within coalitions are inevitable and it is perhaps surprising that we haven’t seen more overt clashes before now.

But the bottom line is that since it was established in June 2021, this is a government that has appeared at best inconsistent and at worst utterly incoherent.

Ryan at times appears to be making up government policy on the fly during his media appearances, yet Martin and Varadkar have so far shown a remarkable tolerance for such behaviour. Yet, with their own positions now under increasing pressure, such tolerance may soon run out.

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