GERARD HOWLIN: FG has been held hostage by institution it was meant to manage

Micheál Martin was born under a lucky star. It’s called Fine Gael. He inherited a once-great political edifice in ruins and his own reputation in tatters. Nothing survived the deluge, writes Gerard Howlin.

Then Fine Gael, saturated with success in 2011, full of natural self-regard

and bolstered by the relative prosperity that accompanies its parliamentarians, looked on that triumph and foolishly saw too much of themselves reflected in it.

The political personality of Fine Gael in government was arrogant. None have said that so much as Labour, who unwisely imagined a partnership of equals.

There was a precursor to yesterday’s debacle back in 2014 when, abetted by cack-handed management of entitlement to medical cards, then Garda commissioner Martin Callinan resigned.

We also had the reassignment of the secretary general at the Department of Justice and the resignation of Alan Shatter as minister. It punctured the historic victory of more than two years previous.

The government parties lost 186 council seats. It was a blow to Fine Gael and a body blow to Labour. Fianna Fáil gained 45 seats and Sinn Féin 105. Those gains were the candidate base for the gains of both parties in the general election.

Then Fine Gael again arrived at Martin’s side with “Keep the Recovery Going”. Fine Gael lost 16 seats, Fianna Fáil gained 23 and Sinn Féin nine. That’s how we got from there to here.

The bare facts overlie a fundamental political disposition. Much was made of a promise of democratic revolution after 2011. But that phrase was an overstatement.

Fine Gael was never about radical change. Its programme was for the restoration of institutions, not their dismantling.

Just as it overplayed its victory in 2011, it fundamentally underestimated the state and scale of decrepitude in many institutions and departments. Now it is the hostage of them.

We are agog with [the Department of] Justice today. But think of [the Department of] Health instead. With a mix of sclerosis and cunning, the agreed recommendations of the Oireachtas for change and reform in the recent Sláintecare report are being slow-walked by that department.

In an aversion to challenge and an underestimation of its scale the key recommendation to establish an implementation group based in the Department of the Taoiseach, has not happened.

The challenge of change is being siloed and long-fingered to eventually fester in future as a catastrophic failure again.

Back to justice, but long before Sláintecare, there was the Toland Report. It was the promulgated path forward out of the serial shambles of 2014. It remains largely unimplemented.

Yesterday’s announcement by a chastened Taoiseach that another group would be set up to assess where we are at on Toland tells all.

Frances Fitzgerald failed politically in not articulating appropriate concern on the legal strategy of An Garda Síochána at the O’Higgins commission.

Her deeper failure, but one in keeping with the disposition evidenced since 2011, was to support rather than challenge the institutions put in her charge.

After Shatter, her mission was to pacify events. She left that department five months ago, politically intact.

But the consequence of inaction relentlessly followed. Her inaction on the specific issue in contention is a symptom. The fundamental cause is an incapacity to lead, and simultaneously reform institutions you are politically leading, but also effectively dependent on.

Her appeasement of a shattered system lasted exactly as long as she could politically sit on top of it. Her successor, Charlie Flanagan, is next into the breach. Her ministerial career is over. His is in its last chapter.

The overlay of Leo Varadkar on all of this is rich in irony. A famously straight-talker, who knee-capped his colleague Alan Shatter in 2014, he himself never translated his radical edge into effective action.

Nowhere is that clearer than in health, where his tenure delivered little. His ambition is a credit to him. His gift for self-promotion is admirable, but there isn’t a ballast of the deeper political skills needed for the office of Taoiseach.

At least there wasn’t in the past weeks. He may grow in the job, but he will have to grow quickly. Time is not on his side. My own view is that he was surprised that Martin jumped into the ring to challenge him.

He didn’t want an election, but he believed that if Martin caused the election he would pay for it. So be it. But he hadn’t studied the terrain.

He didn’t know at first what was hidden, and when he did, he apparently didn’t understand its consequence.

But now he does. What will count for Fine Gael is not the loss of Frances Fitzgerald. It is the loss of his political capital. That honeymoon was some schmooze. But now it’s over.

Varadkar’s immediate challenge is to reassure and re-engage with his parliamentary party. They were sent as cannon fodder to the starting line of a general election, with that most cruel of political traits which is carelessness.

They won’t forget, and some won’t forgive. He must now make a consequential cabinet appointment, and possibly another one as minister of state.

Those appointments will cause widespread disappointment among the many more not chosen. Above all, he must play for time.


He must manage Brexit at the European summit on December 14 and 15. He must come home, mend fences and turn down the dial on the gimmickry and PR. Today he is still just this side of fatal caricature.

It can be rescued, but the first thing to do is stop.

Much is made of the loss of trust between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. It can’t continue, some say. But the confidence and supply arrangement is not based on trust. It rests on far firmer foundations of convenience, which are now multiplied.

An early election will find both main parties unready to capitalise on the potentially larger share of the vote which continued economic recovery might make available to be fought over. It will likely benefit Mary Lou McDonald leading Sinn Féin.

Ironically this schnozzle is proof of a stronger Dáil holding previously unreachable parts of the administration to account. It’s not for the queasy but it’s good for politics.

Micheál Martin must wait until he can see the whites of their eyes before firing the one shot he has at the Taoiseach’s office.

Now Leo must wait as well. If there is the continence to do that, these events will fade, at least for the public. The excitement has been intense, but nothing has changed.

At least not yet. Calling it out for what it is on the way up, falls far short of doing something about it after you have arrived.

Leo has arrived now. The political judgement to be made by the electorate is whether he has the political skills to fill out the character he created as a political persona. In the movies there is a script, but not for the role in the Taoiseach’s office.


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