It was just under two and a half years ago. The early days in the relationship but the signs were not good. One partner couldn’t get used to not being in charge and the other came across as unsure of where he stood. Where would it all end up?
It just goes to show that when you know you have to make things work you knuckle down to it — just as proponents of arranged marriages will tell you. In this case, a political arrangement, there was considerable re-adjustment. Eventually it settled down well. But now the entire dynamic is set to be upended in a first of its kind for this country. This is Micheál Martin’s last full weekend as Taoiseach, a mantle that will be passed next Saturday to Leo Varadkar.
Certainly, at the beginning of the arrangement, the current Tánaiste behaved in a rather brattish manner, constantly trying to keep his nose out in front, making announcements on issues that had yet to be decided at Cabinet, or having mini tantrums in public on what his Government partners would say privately related to issues that he had staged for effect.
Behind the scenes there were also some telling difficulties. It is generally recognised within Government, including coalitions, that it is the Taoiseach’s diary that trumps all others. It has to be fitted in with, rather than the other way around. Enda Kenny, recognised as a Taoiseach who generally had his ego in check, had a terrible habit of being perpetually late. It drove everyone, including his coalition colleagues, crazy. But given he was top dog it was seen as his prerogative.
But Leo apparently took rather a while to adapt to playing second fiddle, his diary played second to that of the man who was now in charge.
There were times when some of his TDs and senators were seething at the oneupmanship displayed by the Fine Gael leader and it occasionally spilled into the public arena.
Despite the provocation, Micheál Martin kept resoundingly shtum.
The Fianna Fáil cadre was also unhappy the new Taoiseach was taking a while to find his feet. Commanding was not a word that came to mind listening to him giving updates on Brexit or Covid or matters relevant at the time, or responding to the political blows of Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald in the Dáil.
But eventually, the Corkman eventually found his feet. In the most recent Sunday Independent Ireland Thinks poll he scored a 46% public approval rating, unchanged from the previous poll, compared to 41% for Mary Lou McDonald, minus four, and 39% for Leo Varadkar, minus one. Indeed, despite his disavowal of opinion polls in general, he will surely have been buoyed by the view of people that he should continue as Taoiseach — 43% — compared to 34% for Leo Varadkar taking that office yet again.
It’s fair to say that people recognise this is a man who went into the office trying to do his absolute best for the country — almost rising above party politics in that way. However, as things stand on the two pressing issues of housing and health, there will be no garlands thrown. The significant disparity continues between Mr Martin’s support and that of his party. In this latest case Fianna Fáil was unchanged at a disappointing 17%.
Recent weeks though have shown some encouragement for the Government in general as the generous payments in September’s €11 billion budget began to be felt.
It’s difficult to gauge exactly how much damage Sinn Féin shipped from Mary Lou McDonald being drawn into evidence in the Regency trial.
But the Government parties have been comforting themselves with the idea that it shows the seemingly unstoppable SF opposition force does have vulnerabilities that can be capitalised on.
So the clock ticks Micheál Martin towards December 17 and his move to a new job of Tánaiste (a first for him) and a new portfolio — most likely the Department of Foreign Affairs. Funnily enough, he may find some solace in the fact that in Government Buildings there is general agreement that when Leo once again becomes number one it will be far easier to be in a coalition with him.
There have not yet been any discussions between the three party leaders on the upcoming reshuffle on the basis that once it starts being spoken about word inevitability gets out. Talks are to begin on Monday. There has been plenty of speculation already about who will be getting on that bus to the Aras on Saturday week to receive the seal of ministerial office from President Higgins.
Technically, this will be a brand new Government. While it makes for more excitement, politically the wiser move at present is a “steady as she goes” approach at the Cabinet table, with the predicted swap of Paschal Donohoe and Michael McGrath in Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform.
There is more leeway for movement at junior minister level. Any changes will have to take gender considerations as well as a geographical spread into account. Remember the controversy in June 2020 when Mayo TD Dara Calleary was appointed as Government chief whip and not a full minister, and it was viewed as a snub to the West of Ireland. Fine Gael’s Hildegarde Naughton, a TD for Galway West, is currently a super junior minister. But will Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael “look after” the West this time.
There is no expectation of change in the current Green party line up. On the Fianna Fáil side might chief whip Jack Chambers be promoted to a full Cabinet position, possibly in Health, or given a super junior post?
A pressing job for Leo Varadkar is to speak to the independents who would be seen as possibly open to continuing to support the Government — Denis Naughton, Michael Lowry, Noel Grealish, Peter Fitzpatrick, Cathal Berry, Matt Shanahan, Marian Harkin, Michael McNamara, Richard O’Donoghue, and Verona Murphy, Of those doubt would hang over the ongoing support of Verona Murphy, Matt Shanahan and Richard O’Donoghue.
Over the first half of this Government we never saw any real threat of a general election being called. The ongoing Brexit situation, aswell as Covid, meant it would have looked as nothing other than self indulgence on the part of those in power — no matter what was going on between them.
But if the Government goes the distance the thoughts of a general election coming closer will put a different complexion on how all the inhabitants of Leinster House are feeling. It will be interesting to watch how Martin operates as Tánaiste, compared to how Varadkar has done so, but also how the Fianna Fáil party treat their leader now that he is no longer in the top job.