The Dáil term in review: Fianna Fáil and Micheál Martin left in a spin ahead of recess

The time has come for Fianna Fáil to dust themselves off and learn from their mistakes. However, is that likely?
The Dáil term in review: Fianna Fáil and Micheál Martin left in a spin ahead of recess
As the Dáil term breaks for a six week recess, how will the party leaders reflect on their first few weeks of work? L to R: Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise Leo Varadkar, Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Minister for Climate Action, Communications Networks and Transport Eamon Ryan. Picture: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

For the 160 TDs returned in February's election, the Oireachtas term which just ended has been the equivalent of a slow-paced movie that suddenly tries to cram 20 plot twists in its last half hour.

The first, torturous month post-election was dominated by everyone talking to everyone else until the inevitable dawned: if Sinn Féin was to be kept out of Government or a second election was to be avoided, then Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were going to have to do business together.

That was what we all said at the start of March, though it still took almost four months to get there.

Despite shouting to the heavens about their willingness to form a Government of “change”, it was clear from very early on that Sinn Féin simply couldn’t fashion the numbers to get into the hot seat without the help of Fianna Fáil, something Micheál Martin made clear would not be happening.

And then a certain global pandemic landed itself, uninvited, into the middle of the party on February 29.

For nearly three months after then-taoiseach Leo Varadkar locked down the country in the face of an apolitical monster of a virus, the artists formerly known as the Big Two and the Greens were locked in talks about how best to force their respective square pegs into round holes.

No one seemed very happy about it, but with the eye-watering money being spent by the State to keep the country afloat with the economy in hibernation, it was generally agreed that a Government with a mandate was needed.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar. Picture: Julien Behal Photography
Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar. Picture: Julien Behal Photography

No one, that is, with the possible exception of Mr Martin, who was destined to finally achieve the ambition of a lifetime and become Taoiseach, thus avoiding the ignominy of being the only leader of his party not to lead the country.

Would he have been quite so happy if he had known in advance how his first five weeks would go? Since the new ministers received their seals of office on June 27, the following, and quite a bit more, has happened:

  • Fianna Fáil TDs far and wide bellyached about not receiving a ministry. Michael Moynihan and Willie O’Dea publicly savaged their leader. Jim O’Callaghan refused a junior ministry and instead set up shop in the long grass, allegedly plotting for a Micheál-free future. And Dara Calleary, the party’s deputy leader, got demoted to chief whip, only to get a ministry after all when...
  • Minister for Agriculture Barry Cowen got pushed onto his sword by the Taoiseach after refusing to fall on it voluntarily over a messy scandal involving a drink-driving arrest while using a provisional licence in September 2016. His first action as minister had been to read a grovelling apology for his four-year-old actions to the Dáil, with no questions asked. But the storm did not disappear and after just 17 days, Mr Cowen became the shortest-serving minister in the history of the State;
  • The Government, at a time of significant unemployment, uncertainty and reliance on social welfare, decided to grant its newest super junior minister a €16,000 pay rise only to then declare a 10% pay cut for itself instead. Minister for Social Protection Heather Humphreys decided to change the rules for qualifying for the Pandemic Unemployment Payment to exclude those not ‘genuinely seeking work’. During a pandemic, when many industries remain shuttered due to public health restrictions. She also decreed that travel abroad for anyone getting the payment is impossible, thus contradicting the Government’s own rules. Then she performed a u-turn to say that all that other stuff she’d said is not the case, and you can travel after all;
  • Backbench Fianna Fáil TD Marc MacSharry decided to brand public servants as couch potatoes solely interested in binge-watching Tiger King, with his party back in Government a matter of weeks for the first time in 10 years, and heavily dependent on those same, now thoroughly incensed, civil servants. An action politely described by one public service source as “braindead”;
  • Meanwhile, Fianna Fáil’s weekly parliamentary party meetings have turned into a serial stocks-pelting session for the newly-minted Taoiseach. With friends like these, etc.

Barry Cowen. File picture: Gareth Chaney Collins Hectic times, though that did not stop Green Party leader Eamon Ryan from falling asleep during a Dáil vote.

It has gotten to the stage that even the PUP scandal, which, lest we forget, emanated from a ministry controlled by Fine Gael since 2016, appears to have tarnished their coalition partners to a greater extent, with Leo’s crowd content to revel in the social media glory of a certain sexagenarian former communications minister’s washboard abs.

For the Government, the Dáil recess has come just in time. For Fianna Fáil, the opportunity is now there to dust themselves down, learn from their mistakes, and set about governing sensibly. How likely is that?

What happens next really depends on how long Fine Gael is prepared to indulge themselves watching their coalition partners self-immolate like a cadre of twisted firestarters. Sooner or later, they may decide that it would be altogether more fun to just pull the plug.

The odds on a second election before the year is out are 10/1 at the moment. That’s a tasty-looking bet.

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