Daniel McConnell: As mass exodus looms, are Fine Gael’s best days behind it?

Leo Varadkar has returned as Taoiseach, but his party is increasingly looking in rag order as defections ahead of any election continue to mount, writes Daniel McConnell
Daniel McConnell: As mass exodus looms, are Fine Gael’s best days behind it?

This latest story is a stark eye-opener into how difficult the next election will be for Varadkar and company.. Picture: Finbarr O’Rourke

ELAINE LOUGHLIN’S tantalising lead story in Friday’s Irish Examiner, which said that up to nine Fine Gael TDs are to bow out and not contest the next general election, raises many fascinating questions about Leo Varadkar’s party and its future.

Her diligent reporting told us that Kerry TD Brendan Griffin and Cork East TD David Stanton are virtually certain not to run. Griffin’s non-denial of the story to Radio Kerry yesterday spoke volumes, while Stanton’s intentions have been clear since he lost ministerial office.

We know that Donegal TD Joe McHugh has already signalled his intention to stand down at the next election. Losing his Cabinet office and the trauma of the mica issue have taken their toll on him and he is seeking a quieter life.

Others on the way out are veterans Bernard Durkan (age 77), Fergus O’Dowd (age 74), Charlie Flanagan (age 66), and Michael Creed (age 59) who are all unlikely to feature at Cabinet or junior ministerial level ever again.

Then there is the fate of three former junior ministers Paul Kehoe, who sat at Cabinet as Enda Kenny’s Chief Whip for six years; Kilkenny TD John Paul Phelan, and recently demoted Roscommon TD Frank Feighan who are all also considering their future.

Stark as the story would be for party bosses, in truth it is likely to be worse when you consider the future of some of Fine Gael’s leading lights like Simon Coveney, Paschal Donohoe, and even Varadkar himself.

Fine Gael, having been in office since 2011, is clearly on the downward slide of its time in Government, with its best days behind it.

Parallels to Fianna Fáil's fall

The likely exodus of such a large group of TDs is eerily reminiscent of what happened to Brian Cowen’s Fianna Fáil before the 2011 General Election where many of the leading lights walked off the pitch rather than defend the party’s handling of the financial crash.

Having been in office since 1997 under Bertie Ahern, since the onset of the crash, it was long since clear that the party was on the slide and public anger toward Fianna Fáil was escalating by the day.

Rather than face the anger, some of the party’s senior ranks decided to exit stage left with the benefit of their whopper pensions behind them. Batt O’Keeffe, Dermot Ahern, Noel Dempsey, and Tony Killeen were among the 19 Fianna Fáil TDs who decided to bow out before the 2011 election, which saw Fianna Fáil lose 56 seats.

What was also clear was that the country was paying a high cost for Fianna Fáil being in office for far too long.

It has been evident for quite some time that the decision to re-enter Government in 2016 under Enda Kenny, when it had lost the election and 26 seats, may have been the least bad option in the short run, but over the longer term it would come at a cost to the party.

It did. Despite the change of leadership to Varadkar in 2017, the party lost another 15 seats in 2020 and having lost a second general election in a row, incredibly Fine Gael — now reduced to being the third largest party — found itself back in Government yet again.

Having been in office now for 11 years, the decision to return to Government will ultimately prove extremely costly for the party.

Portent of the future

This latest story is a stark eye-opener into how difficult the next election will be for Varadkar and company.

Unable to argue credibly that it is an agent for change, Fine Gael’s two major weaknesses when facing the public next time are its failure to improve the housing situation or tackle the health system. In fact, on its watch, due to a failure to keep apace with the country’s population growth, the situation in both areas has gotten worse.

This was the party’s biggest Achilles heel in 2020 which meant they were forced to go to the country on the basis of its handling of Brexit, a matter which the public had tuned out of significantly.

But looking ahead, as hesitant as Varadkar was to go into government in 2020, it is neither feasible nor wise for his party to think a fourth consecutive term in office is good for anyone.

A change at the top?

Given that, and in light of his previous comments about leaving politics before the age of 50, is it unlikely Varadkar will commit to what could be a decade in Opposition.

Will Coveney, who is the only other minister who has sat at the Cabinet table since 2011? Will Paschal Donohoe and Heather Humphreys, who have been there since 2014?

Followers of the internal goings-on of Varadkar’s Fine Gael will point to an increasingly unhappy ship. The lack of any substantial change in last month’s reshuffle was a missed opportunity for Varadkar who played safe rather than seeking to inject some steel and life back into his flagging team.

The Taoiseach has no more sticks or carrots with which to hold his troops in line and is more and more likely to feel the heat from his nervous backbenches as the election season approaches. And the sense of frustration at the state of the party is palpable from speaking to anyone not in ministerial office.

'Fed up'

Back to Brendan Griffin, for example. A TD since 2011, Griffin along with Eoghan Murphy emerged as a rare beacon of independent thinking willing to kick out at the heavy-handed way of Kenny and his inner circle of advisers.

Once a close ally of Varadkar, Griffin was part of a troop of ambitious and hungry Fine Gael ministers and TDs in their mid-30s who were more than happy to go out and bat for the party when the going got tough.

The Brendan Griffin of 2023 is a very different character. He is known to have become disillusioned with Varadkar’s leadership. “There are a lot of people who are fed up with politics now. There are people in the party who are just fed up,” one Fine Gael senator told the Irish Examiner.

Fine Gael TD Brendan Griffin, who will most likely not run in the next General Election after becoming disillusioned with Leo Varadkar’s leadership. Photo:
Fine Gael TD Brendan Griffin, who will most likely not run in the next General Election after becoming disillusioned with Leo Varadkar’s leadership. Photo:

While family reasons were provided as an explanation when Griffin turned down a junior ministerial role offered by Mr Varadkar before Christmas, those close to him say he also could not promise the Taoiseach that he would continue in politics, which had been a stipulation of any appointment.

Between the considerable damage done by Varadkar’s own leak inquiry controversy, Simon Coveney’s continued botched handling of the Katherine Zappone affair in 2021 and the more recent Paschal Donohoe postergate saga, the party’s confidence has certainly been shaken.

Alternative to Sinn Féin

Politics is often about confidence and a downbeat mood can quickly become one of terminal despondence. Just look at the Labour Party.

Fine Gael’s advantage over anyone else is that it is really the only mainstream party in Ireland seeking to advocate for a centre-right to right-wing audience.

The small business owner, the entrepreneur, the aspirational classes who want to better themselves, the farmer. They will want a strong viable party to believe in come election time.

Coming from that vantage point, Fine Gael is best positioned to advance itself as the real alternative to a surging Sinn Féin. Leo Varadkar may be Taoiseach again, but his party is increasingly in rag order. 

Should he fail to rectify that, he and his party will pay a heavy price.

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