Cast your mind back to 2009, writes Daniel McConnell.
Frank Flannery, the great political guru of Fine Gael was sensationally demoted as director of elections for having the temerity to suggest his party and Sinn Féin “could do business” together in terms of a future coalition.
The story, penned by John Lee in the Mail on Sunday during the George Lee by-election, caused ructions.
While George Lee’s election was not in doubt in Dublin South, another Fine Gael candidate (then senator now finance minister Paschal Donohoe) was also seeking election.
Flannery, probably thinking Donohoe would need Sinn Féin transfers to stand a chance of election, floated the idea of a future alliance.
It went down in flames, Flannery felt the wrath of leader Enda Kenny, and Donohoe was not successful at that time in Dublin Central. The seat was won by Maureen O’Sullivan, the so-called Tony Gregory candidate.
Flannery, the party’s long-serving strategist, no longer held the position of director of elections, after his comments caused uproar and acute embarrassment to Kenny at a crucial juncture in the lead-up to the election.
While Flannery was not sacked, he did have to offer an apology to Fine Gael TDs and senators for his comments.
Internally, there was a widespread realisation that such a controversy could have caused potentially serious damage in a general election campaign.
Flannery’s demotion was significant because he was one of the key figures in the revival of Fine Gael’s fortunes since the 2002 general election meltdown.
He wrote the plan for the party’s recovery and has been a key figure in candidate selection and electoral strategy in all the elections since.
I recall that episode of nine years ago, given the talk this week of a significant thawing in relations between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin.
And more particularly, the fallout from the comments by minister Jim Daly that he has no “ideological objection” to being in government with Sinn Féin.
You see, the major difference between now and 2009 is a more cordial relationship between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin since the departure of Enda Kenny and Gerry Adams and the elevation of Leo Varadkar and Mary Lou McDonald.
Varadkar himself — before his elevation to Government Buildings — took a consistently hostile line to IRA apologists.
In 2015, Varadkar, then health minister, said that Sinn Féin’s policies would be “economically disastrous” for the country, adding: “We all know they will never secure an overall majority, or anything near it.
“I shudder to think about a Sinn Féin foreign policy that would alienate allies, terrify foreign investors, and close off the very markets we have done so much to open.
“Their rigid ideology is all well and good on the back benches, where it can be dismissed, answered or ignored, but not on the world stage.”
In early 2016, while health minister, Varadkar described former IRA leader Thomas ‘Slab’ Murphy as a “thug” and a “gangster” and said Sinn Féin will always be associated with murders and bodies buried in bogs.
Varadkar said: “Oh come off it, where’s my party’s past or legacy of people who were murdered, bodies buried in bogs, or people still living today who were maimed, who are still carrying the scars and burns?”
But, since becoming Taoiseach, the old-school hostility has certainly eased.
When McDonald assumed the leadership of Sinn Fein from Adams, Varadkar was effusive in his congratulations.
Speaking to reporters in Vienna in February, he said:
“And as somebody who leads my party, I know the enormous sense of pride that comes with being able to lead the party that you have worked for for 10 or 20 years, and I know how proud her family must be of her and also she is only the third woman to lead a political party in Ireland, and I think that is an achievement in its own right, so I wish her well — but not too well needless to say — in her new role.”
All very nice and friendly.
And in an unprecedented move, Sinn Féin in turn congratulated Varadkar for “showing leadership” on next month’s referendum on the Eighth Amendment.
Sinn Féin TD Louise O’Reilly told the Dáil Mr Varadkar had shown leadership in his pronouncements on Monday night as she also welcomed his pledge to campaign for change on abortion.
“Thank you most sincerely for that,” the Dublin Fingal TD said.
The Sinn Féin health spokeswoman added that she was prepared to go to Mr Varadkar’s own Dublin West constituency, for a joint canvass with him, along with other politicians, such as Solidarity TD Ruth Coppinger.
“Perhaps you might come to Fingal and do the same,” O’Reilly said.
Mr Varadkar thanked the Sinn Féin TD for her contribution as he urged all TDs, irrespective of their views on abortion, to back the holding of a referendum. He said nobody under the age of 52 had a chance to vote on the issue and he also urged a respectful debate during the referendum campaign.
Such is the noted difference in tone between the parties that the British Brexit minister, David Davis, said Sinn Fein is now “strongly influencing” the Government in Brexit talks.
Last week, Davis said Sinn Féin has pushed Varadkar’s Government to adopt a harder stance in negotiations which he had not foreseen.
Davis claimed that, since Varadkar became Taoiseach, Sinn Féin gained “quite a strong influence”.
“Well, you had a change of leader or a change in Taoiseach,” he said. “They’ve [Sinn Féin] been playing a strong political role which they haven’t done historically, that I hadn’t foreseen.”
In response, Varadkar called the remarks “a bit strange”.
But Sinn Féin TD Gerry Adams said the Taoiseach has brought a “better approach” to Brexit talks.
“I appreciate, and Mary Lou McDonald, our leader, appreciates, the fact that the Taoiseach has been forthright in terms of there being no return to a hard economic border, that he has been forthright in terms of no return to British direct rule, that he has called and asked for them to be a reconvening of the inter-governmental conference,” he said.
All of this has been noticed by Fianna Fáil, who clearly are nervous about any potential alliance which could see them sidelined out of government again.
Speaking to me this week, Fianna Fáil’s new deputy leader Dara Calleary said there is more than Jim Daly talking up the chances of a fine Gael-Sinn Féin alliance.
“It is very interesting,” he said. “It is clear it is not just Jim Daly. You can see there is a particularly warm relationship between Leo and Mary Lou which wasn’t there with Gerry Adams.”
Calleary said Varadkar has nowhere near as hostile a relationship as it was with Gerry Adams.
“So, there is a definitely a warming of relations between them,” he said.
Such talk has been rubbished by Varadkar and also by Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe yesterday.
But change is definitely in the air and Fine Gael is clearly seeking to leave its options open after the next election.
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