Leo Varadkar’s talks with Fianna Fáil on the parties’ confidence and supply deal poses the first test of his leadership, writes Political Correspondent Fiachra Ó Cionnaith.
"We will be watching closely.”
“He claims credit for things we have done and any obvious attempts to force an election will be seen-through by the public.”
“Completely insufficient progress has been made in addressing the housing crisis... health... education... infrastructure... broadband... and much, much more.”
If Leo Varadkar mistakenly believes his Fine Gael leadership election last Friday means the “hard” work is over, he will be in for a short, sharp shock this week.
Over the coming days, the new taoiseach-in-waiting will sit down with his Fianna Fáil counterpart, Micheál Martin, to smooth out — a trait he is not exactly known for — a series of stand-offs at the heart of the parties’ fragile confidence and supply deal.
And, as the above quotes from Fianna Fáil heavyweights Barry Cowen, Willie O’Dea and Mr Martin since his election last Friday show, it will be far from plain sailing.
With both parties clammering to snatch the upper hand in their ongoing battle for power, the discussions with Mr Martin are far more than updating the current deal now a new man is in the hotseat.
As both leaders — and their strategists eavesdropping behind an arras — know all too well, this week’s meetings pose the first real opporunity to test Mr Varadkar’s leadership credentials, with the outcome likely to have far-reaching consequences for both individuals future ambitions.
Although Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have politely smiled and earnestly said they will continue to honour the increasingly strained confidence and supply deal, fingers firmly crossed behind their backs, the reality is these public promises are entirely dependent on which one gains control in the new relationship.
Over the coming days, Mr Varadkar will want to stamp his authority on the deal by making it clear he can out-manoeuvre Fianna Fáil — a key reason why he was elected — and push his most high-profile policy issues over the line.
Similarly, Mr Martin will be keen to pin down exact costs on high-profile promises from the incoming taoiseach, publicly limit Mr Varadkar’s more right-wing tendencies for pragmatic voter appeal as much as any ideological reason, and ensure his new adversary does not get off to a flying start that will inevitably lead to snap election mutterings.
Despite Mr Varadkar’s subtle reference to not being able to “honestly” say Fine Gael will not form a coalition with Fianna Fail in the future during his first press conference as party leader last Friday, and Mr Martin’s public congratulations on the personal achievement, the talks this week will be key to framing the next stage of both parties’ thinly veiled war.
The future of USC, when Irish Water refunds begin, sticking to debt repayments, the strategy for upcoming Brexit talks, the garda commissioner, the scandals in the health, housing and transport systems and barely believable “guarantees” no snap election is hurtling down the tracks, will dominate Mr Varadkar’s first cross-party discussions in power.
And that’s before any thought even turns to the essential third cog in the minority government arrangement, the Independents, who will want their fair share of influence in the deal extendedgiven a new taoiseach will soon be in place — and will not be shy in saying it.
The biggest stumbling block for Mr Varadkar to overcome in the talks is likely to be his own relationship with Mr Martin.
A far more tense affair than the Fianna Fáil leader’s latter interractions with the outgoing Enda Kenny, partially because Mr Martin clearly had the upper hand, both Mr Varadkar and Mr Martin have been quick to publicly ridicule each other in the past.
For every reference by Mr Martin to Mr Varadkar’s“commentator” health minister status, there has been the claim Mr Martin is akin to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in the 1980s cult film Total Recall as he had “alternative memories planted in his brain” and forgot his own health struggles.
Add in the fact Mr Varadkar was seen as being less than engaged in last year’s talks between the parties and it is clear some love-bombing may be required, an issue which might explain Mr Varadkar’s comment last Friday that he cannot “honestly” rule out a future coalition between the parties.
Any attempt to make peace, however, will be limited to within the current confidence and supply deal which runs out in autumn 2018, with Fianna Fáil making it abundantly clear it will not support Mr Varadkar’s more right-wing policies.
Speaking to the Irish Examiner at the height of the Fine Gael leadership race, Fianna Fáil public expenditure spokesperson Dara Calleary and a party spokesperson stressed Mr Varadkar’s controversial union strike ban plan will not be backed and cannot happen under the current deal.
However, how both parties play out this and other tugs of war over Mr Varadkar’s more right-wing tendancies in talks this week will be central to their relationship — and their manoeuvring for the next election, explaining Fianna Fail’s centre left re-positioning in recent months.
Where the parties will inevitably clash more directly will be on financial issues, with this due to dominate talks this week.
Mr Varadkar’s plans to privatise sections of third level institutes’ funding, “relax” Ireland’s debt repayments to free up populist capital spending, repay water charge payments this year and - crucially — merging USC and PRSI into a single social insurance payment will all be strongly opposed by Fianna Fáil, keen to portray itself as economically safe, and this is where sparks will fly.
In several media references in recent days Fianna Fáil TDs have made it clear the high-profile policy is not a runner, with finance spokesperson Micheál McGrath underlining this point in a blunt statement to the Sunday Business Post which left no room for misinterpretation.
“Given how tight the numebrs are and how finely balanced the arrangement is I don’t see scope for policy shifts within this Government,” he said.
The issue will inevitably be used as as good an excuse as any for both Mr Varadkar and Mr Martin to throw their weight around this week, before some halfway house arrangement is found.
But how both sides sell their message to the public in the shadow PR war hiding just behind the legitimate issue will be watched just as closely.
Although the genuine issues of health, the escalating housing crisis, Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan, transport infrastructure delays and Brexit planning will also be raised, in reality the discussions will be shadow-boxing before the Dáil resumes next week.
Where Mr Varadkar will need to focus any additional attention will be in his approaches to the Independent Alliance, unaligned Independents Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone and Communications Minister Denis Naughten, and a small number of opposition Independents supporting Government on a vote-by-vote basis.
While it has already been made clear no Independent minister will lose their job in any cabinet reshuffle — an issue fought hard for by the Independent Alliance — Mr Varadkar would do well to find time in his thoughts for their own individual hobby horses.
Thank you pic.twitter.com/qj04UVzIek— Leo Varadkar (@LeoVaradkar) June 2, 2017
John Halligan’s southeast cardiology services, Finian McGrath’s disability service and Beaumont Hospital reforms, Sean Canney’s small businesses, flooding and rural focus, Shane Ross’s judicial revolution and the musings of opposition TD Dr Michael Harty that he is “reviewing” his vote-by-vote support due to rural GP issues have had significant airing in recent days.
And while the focus is understandably on the meetings between Mr Varadkar and Mr Martin, the new Fine Gael leader must ensure his smaller allies do not feel ignored.
While technically Mr Varadkar must navigate through this week to ensure he has enough support when the Dáil resumes on Tuesday, June 13, to be formally elected Ireland’s new taoiseach, this is not really in doubt. What is, however, is what approach he will take, and the strategy’s longer term implications.
Yesterday, when asked about Mr Varadkar replacing Enda Kenny, Fianna Fail housing spokesperson Barry Cowen told RTÉ’s The Week in Politics: “We’ll be watching closely.”
We couldn’t put it better ourselves.
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