Elaine Loughlin: Is Fine Gael facing an exodus of senior TDs?

As well as expected retirements, party sources speculate that the likes of Leo Varadkar, Simon Coveney and Paschal Donohoe could follow Eoghan Murphy in leaving politics
Elaine Loughlin: Is Fine Gael facing an exodus of senior TDs?

Elaine Loughlin: 'Many in the party feel they are now on borrowed time and, with Sinn Féin on the rise, a stint in opposition is inevitable.'

Political annihilation can come swiftly at the ballot box, but for Fine Gael, a mass exodus of sitting TDs will happen ahead of any election day.

Now on its third government term, the third of which is still categorised by some as one that should never have been, many in the party feel they are now on borrowed time and, with Sinn Féin on the rise, a stint in opposition is inevitable.

There is always some natural attrition ahead of any election but beyond expected retirements, a number of high-profile members – including Leo Varadkar, Paschal Donohoe, and even Simon Coveney – will be weighing up their options.

"Straightaway, you have people who have been there, done that, they have been at the top, they have been at Cabinet," said one TD.

You could have up to 10 sitting TDs who won't be running again for Fine Gael, you could even get close to the dozen mark."

Another Fine Gael member put the pre-election churn as high as 50% of current TDs, citing the likes of Michael Creed, David Stanton, Michael Ring, Charlie Flanagan, and possibly Richard Bruton bowing out.

Fergus O'Dowd and Bernard Durkan will be in their mid and late 70s, respectively, by the time the next election comes around.

Even former minister Paul Kehoe will have served more than 20 years if this Dáil lasts the full term and would be on the old gold-plated scheme in terms of pensions.

Opposition would feel like a demotion

For those younger, ambitious, career-driven personalities, opposition would certainly feel like a demotion, especially since they are at a stage in life where they can still forge a career outside of Leinster House.

"Leo is in Cabinet 10 years, Simon Coveney is in Cabinet 10 years, Paschal Donohoe is not far behind them, so what do the three of them do?" asked one party member.

While the exact number is likely to depend on the timing of the election, it is clear that Fine Gael will lose a significant chunk of its parliamentary party and will be forced to rebuild ahead of a campaign.

"That will be one of the big, big challenges for Fine Gael, in terms of who will be left and the party will have to be rebuilt. Is it possible to rebuild a party that would have gone from 76 seats in 2011 to possibly going into an election with just over 20 incumbents?" one party source asked.

There are question marks over whether Leo Varadkar will be the person leading Fine Gael into the next election.
There are question marks over whether Leo Varadkar will be the person leading Fine Gael into the next election.

"The other side of it is you would have no difficulty finding candidates if the party was anywhere north of 30%, but that's a big if and there is a lot to happen yet."

There are question marks over whether Leo Varadkar will be the person leading Fine Gael into the next election.

Mr Varadkar has always made it known that he does not see Leinster House as a place he wants to remain for life and in 2015 famously announced that he didn't see himself in politics at 51.

Now 42, Mr Varadkar may have watered down the public utterances, but if the party was to end up in opposition next time around, would he stay on? And, more importantly, would his party allow him to remain on as leader?

Paschal Donohoe

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe. Picture: Sam Boal / RollingNews.ie
Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe. Picture: Sam Boal / RollingNews.ie

It is also being speculated that Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe will jump ship after this term.

His current role as president of the Eurogroup has led to chatter that he now has his sights firmly set on Europe.

The tide of support for Mr Donohoe, who was director of elections last year, seems to have turned and he is no longer viewed as a future contender to lead Fine Gael.

"You could argue that we lost the last election, we lost loads of seats, we had a terrible election and we kind of ended up in Government by accident," one senior source said.

"A lot of the backbenchers would hold grievances that he was director of elections at the last election," said another source, adding that some in Fine Gael are also asking why he held such a tight grip of the public purse strings when he was in the Department of Public Expenditure. 

Those on the Fine Gael backbenches are further irritated by the fact that his successor, Michael McGrath, is seen to be more generous.

Simon Coveney

Simon Coveney.
Simon Coveney.

Simon Coveney keeps his cards close to his chest and is regarded as a loyal party man, but he will also have a considerable amount of soul searching to do ahead of an election.

If he were to stay on and lead Fine Gael through a term in opposition, it would be three decades since he was first elected to Dáil Éireann before the office of An Taoiseach would be up for grabs again.

"Coveney has done it all, apart from being taoiseach. Is he going to wait for five years in opposition after the current four years, that could be nine years?" asked one party member.

Another added: "You have to remember when a vacancy came up in the European Commission, he tried to go for it."

However, a source close to the Coveney camp, said: "I don't see him leaving. I don't think Simon is going to go anywhere."

Eoghan Murphy

 Former housing minister Eoghan Murphy. Picture: Marc O'Sullivan
Former housing minister Eoghan Murphy. Picture: Marc O'Sullivan

The recent departure of former housing minister Eoghan Murphy has certainly focused the minds of Fine Gael members, especially those who reached ministerial level at a young age and have enjoyed walking the corridors of power.

One of Mr Murphy's 2011 classmates said: "When Eoghan retired from politics it did make us all think, quite a number of us have had chats about it."

For Fine Gael, it is not about what the next general election brings but what comes directly before any campaign.

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Did you know?

American President John F Kennedy at Cork City Hall with Lord Mayor Sean Casey during his visit to the city in June 1963.
American President John F Kennedy at Cork City Hall with Lord Mayor Sean Casey during his visit to the city in June 1963.

Leinster House is home to a very important artefact from the American Civil War. The battle flag of the Fighting 69th was gifted by President John F Kennedy when he visited in June 1963.

In his speech, President Kennedy said he was donating the green flag – which details the brigade’s list of battle honours, with Fredericksburg at the top – in "recognition of what these gallant Irishmen and what millions of other Irish have done for my country".

However, the flag became embroiled in a tug of war back in 2015 when the Oireachtas refused a formal request to have it loaned back to the regiment’s historic trust, which was seeking to use it use in 1916 centenary celebrations in the US.

What to look out for this week

Tuesday: The Cabinet will discuss the return of non-essential foreign travel (and even sun holidays!) when it meets on Tuesday morning. The Taoiseach's office has been working on a plan to allow for the reopening of our international borders in the coming months. 

However, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has already indicated it will be August before the first Irish jet-setters can head abroad on holidays. Measures to tackle the sale of large numbers of new homes to cuckoo funds are also expected to be discussed at Cabinet.

Tuesday: The Health Committee is to hear from Department of Health officials on capital expenditure on health services.

Tuesday: Given the escalating situation in Israel and Palestine, the discussion of the displacements and demolition in occupied Palestinian territory by the Foreign Affairs Committee will be worth tuning into.

Wednesday: Tánaiste Leo Varadkar will come before the Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment to take questions on the employment rights and health and safety of content moderators for social media sites. A moderator of inappropriate content at Facebook recently described the “horrible, lucid dreams” she suffers due to the “awful” content she is expected to deal with on a daily basis when she came before the committee. Isabella Plunkett revealed that wellness coaches often suggest “karaoke or painting” to moderators who are struggling.

Leo Varadkar is also expected to be pressed on the reactivation of the economy following the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Wednesday: TDs are to debate legislation to allow for calculated grades for this year's Leaving Cert class. The bill also contains measures to curb any lobbying of teachers by parents to alter or increase marks.

Thursday: Both Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue and Higher Education Simon Harris will take questions in the Dáil on Thursday morning.

While you are here, why not sign up to our new 'On The Plinth' political newsletter. Delivered direct to your inbox every Tuesday. Sign up here    exa.mn/ontheplinth

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