DANIEL MCCONNELL: Martin may rue failure to effect change

The appointment of young Dublin West TD Jack Chambers was the sum total of change to the Fianna Fáil front bench in the reshuffle announced by Micheál Martin on Thursday, writes Daniel McConnell

HOORAY for young Jack Chambers. The Dublin West TD, aged 27, was the sum total of change to Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin’s front bench in his sort-of reshuffle announced on Thursday.

Reshuffles are notoriously tricky territories for leaders, both in government and in opposition.

As Jonathan Powell, former adviser to Tony Blair, wrote in his book The New Machiavelli, reshuffles are not HR exercises and leaders have to consider the political balance of the whole team.

If you appoint only your own supporters, you build up resentment among others. If you pass over your supporters too readily, they grow resentful.

You also have to be careful who you sack. If you sack too many of your enemies, you will find them organising opposition to you on the back benches.

It is sometimes better to have them in than out.

But equally, Powell argues, you don’t want perversely to reward people for plotting, or that will convince more of them that attacking the leadership is a safe way to secure a job.

You also have to achieve generational balance. But you cannot leave older people in place too long or the younger ones will grow restive.

Micheál’s first big mistake was that no one lost their job. A few people changed portfolio and Mayo TD Dara Calleary has lost his portfolio, but assumes the mantle of deputy leader and director of policy.

Powell argues that a leader should always err on the side of sacking more people and bringing on more young talent faster, even if, in doing, so he is taking a political risk by building up resentment on the back benches. If he lacks talent in his front bench, he will lose anyway, and, if the party succeeds, his popularity will discourage those on the back benches from trying to remove him.

But Martin decided against this, a clear sign of his weakness and vulnerability.

So, the only change in terms of personnel is Chambers. A mild-mannered social conservative, Chambers was the heir to Brian Lenihan’s old seat in the 2016 general election.

Clearly, as the only change to the personnel ranks, he is Martin’s secret weapon, the man to stop the march of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his swaggering Blueshirts.

Chambers is the missing X factor that will ignite Fianna Fáil and deliver the Soldiers of Destiny to the promised land of government.

It is a lot of pressure to put on the shoulders of the freshman TD, to save his once-great party from a third successive election defeat. But that is what Martin has done.

I say this because we now know Micheál Martin’s team to fight the pending election, which increasingly looks like it will happen this year.

While there had been mutterings for a couple of weeks about a possible change prior to Easter, when it did come on Thursday, it was something of a surprise.

Such a change of line-up shouts one thing to me: Fianna Fáil is a party in crisis and it needed to do something to resurrect its floundering fortunes.

Also, the nature of the changes is a realisation that Martin is not in total control of his party and finds himself increasingly isolated and vulnerable.

As a party, Fianna Fáil as of now resembles a week-old bottle of 7UP — flat and lifeless.

Fine Gael, on the other hand, is at present successfully projecting an image of being dynamic, young, and more importantly, in control, notwithstanding various crises and foul-ups.

It would seem the public, according to several opinion polls, is increasingly satisfied with how the country is going, driven by increased employment.

The consistent trend now from the polls is that Fine Gael is between six and 11 points ahead of Fianna Fáil, and that trend is, without question, part of the motivation for the reshuffle.

But how effective will it be, when no one lost their job?

Another curious decision is the appointment of a deputy leader after six-plus years of doing without one.

Now, no one can really argue with Calleary’s appointment as deputy leader. A former junior finance minister and Brian Cowen loyalist, he is a highly popular member of the party.

Mayo TD Dara Calleary
Mayo TD Dara Calleary

He is a brilliant networker and has a knack of making allies across the parliamentary party, councillors, and grassroots, despite his openly conservative views. He is a strong advocate for retaining the Eighth Amendment.

Calleary is the modern-day Séamus Brennan — the friendly face of the party who can be sent out to bat on difficult issues and perform without fail.

While he has repeatedly talked down his ambitions of becoming leader one day, he would be a popular choice and has the ability.

Aside from the elevation of Chambers, some of the other moves by Martin are bizarre, to say the least.

On what level does it make sense to put Stephen Donnelly, an economist and a Brexit obsessive, into the health portfolio? One suspects it had more to do with Cork North Central’s Billy Kelleher’s desire to get out of the brief, having seen his party leader continually focus on health during Leaders’ Questions and in media outings.

But it is a strange fit.

How are we to read Barry Cowen’s move from Housing to Public Expenditure and Reform or the moving of Niall Collins to Foreign Affairs and Trade? From speaking to more than a dozen Fianna Fáil TDs, the reshuffle has done little to assuage their concerns as to how the party is being run.

Resentful of an increasingly high-handed approach from Martin’s advisers Deirdre Gillane and Pat McParland about the abortion issue, there is also an unhappiness over the performance of several frontbench TDs.

“They don’t bother showing up to party meetings; they treat the backbenches with contempt and people, even moderate people, are highly annoyed,” one Fianna Fáil TD told me.

“Micheál has managed to isolate himself and is also refusing to engage properly with the concerns of the party.”

On the abortion issue, I have confirmed that the move by 21 of the party’s TDs to vote against putting the referendum to the people was a vote of protest over Martin’s handling of the issue in recent weeks.

TDs resented being phoned by Martin’s office to be told which way to vote, despite the promise of a free vote.

A similar annoyance surfaced this week when party senators received similar calls telling them not to block the passage of the referendum bill.

Martin may rue failure to effect change

The abortion issue has also highlighted the party’s identity crisis: Is it urban, is it rural? Is it liberal? Is it conservative? It doesn’t seem to know, and such uncertainty is perhaps the greatest impediment to its chances of being in Government.

Severely constrained by the ties of the confidence and supply deal, which sees it facilitating the minority Government from opposition, Fianna Fáil finds itself boxed in and being squeezed by Fine Gael on one side and Sinn Féin on the other.

His reshuffle was Martin’s last throw of the dice to save his own position, as he would be under fire to depart should he lose another election

His failure to be more radical in his reshuffle may well be the beginning of the end for Micheál Martin, who once again looks set to be the first Fianna Fáil leader never to become Taoiseach.


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