DANIEL MCCONNELL: Fianna Fáil seeking to play footsie with lost love Labour

Micheál Martin: 'Our main focus will be to grow our party.' Picture: Gareth Chaney Collins

Fianna Fáil’s leader has been quite clear about which party he’d prefer to be in Government with, writes Daniel McConnell, Political Editor

NOT for the first time has Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin made soothing sounds about forming a Coalition with the Labour Party.

In an interview with my colleague Elaine Loughlin, Martin has given a strong indication of his preferred option for what form the next Government will take.

Unlike in the past five years, when it looked that Fianna Fáil were not heading back to power anytime soon, they now stand as the largest party and currently look best placed to lead the next Government.

Talking up the success of the last Fianna Fáil-Labour coalition, Martin left little doubt as to where his heart is, speaking in the context that single party governments are a thing of the past. “The Fianna Fáil-Labour party 1992-1994 Government was a very good Government. I was a backbench TD then and many people regret the manner in which that government broke up and a lot of good legislation came out of that combination of Fianna Fáil and Labour,” said Martin.

“The prioritisation of the arts for example was very strong in that era, equality legislation and so on and there was very good infrastructural work commenced.”

He added: “That’s then and this is now, it all depends on how respective parties do. Our main focus will be to grow our party.

“At this particular point in time Labour has to grow itself and has a lot going on, it’s far too early to say who would be prospective partners, supporters, you could very well have a minority government next time around as well,” Martin said.

Martin is correct to say the 1992-1994 Government worked well, but the manner in which it broke up is a cautionary tale.

Yes a lot of good legislation came out of that period, but relations between then Taoiseach Albert Reynolds and his Labour tanaiste Dick Spring were notoriously poor and any future arrangement if it were to succeed would need good relations to exist.

Fast forward to today, indeed, across the floor of the Dáil in recent weeks, Howlin and Martin have been playing footsie, and some have remarked that a very fine bromance is blossoming between them.

But is such a scenario achievable?

While heavily caveating his comments, the import of Martin’s words is crystal clear.

Since becoming leader, he has deliberately sought to move Fianna Fáil to the centre left and there are many issues that he and Brendan Howlin would agree strongly on.

Well, with Fianna Fáil now polling at 30% plus in the polls and most likely to outpoll Fine Gael next time around, they are the favourite to lead the next Government.

Obviously, we don’t know when the election will be, but we know that this current minority Government is most unlikely to run for a full term.

Fine Gael, while still the largest party with 50 TDs, only look like they are going one way, particularly as long as Enda Kenny remains as Taoiseach.

It is most likely that Martin’s party will reclaim the mantle of being the largest party at national level from Fine Gael, and in that case the comments about the Labour Party are significant.

Ideologically the two parties may be closer than Fine Gael and Labour ever were, but the other big obstacle is the Labour Party itself.

Decimated at the last election to just seven TDs, given the party’s age profile, will it have recovered sufficiently to make up the numbers needed to form a Government? After a solid first term as leader in the Dáil, the party still faces enormous challenges in terms of organisation regrowth and blooding a new generation of faces to lead the party.

Under constant attack from Sinn Féin and the hard left, Labour needs to quickly re-establish itself or risk fading away into oblivion. However, Howlin has shown himself to be a very constructive voice in opposition.

Unlike the others, he has sought to support good ideas but has rightly criticised much of the folly we have seen in the Dáil since May 6, when this impotent minority Coalition was eventually formed.

Less than a year ago, Martin looked like he was to be the first ever Fianna Fáil leader to never become Taoiseach.

A better than expected election campaign, largely gifted to him by an incompetent Fine Gael, means becoming Taoiseach is now a strong possibility.

Martin’s comments about Labour are significant as he clearly sees a brighter future with the Labour Party than trying to explore a full partnership arrangement with Fine Gael, who will not be led by Enda Kenny.

After the election result, a weakened Kenny reached out the hand to Martin on more than one occasion in order to see whether such a full partnership was possible, only to be spurned.

Martin sits now in Opposition but yet with the effective control of what happens in Government.

The upcoming Budget will be the ultimate test of the minority Government, but it is clear Fianna Fáil will have a strong input to it. Then when the time is right, Martin will pull the trigger and we will see if he gets his wish to form a Government with his Labour friends.


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