GERARD HOWLIN: Tired opposition need to come from behind to catch revitalised Fine Gael

Micheál Martin gives his presidential address at the party ard fheis in the RDS Dublin last year.

Fianna Fáil began the New Year behind. The difference is more important than the five seats that separate the two main parties in the Dáil.

Momentum is one measurement. That’s subjective of course.

Opinion polls are empirical — but passing — estimates.

Time is another of course. The Enda Kenny regime was palpably tired towards its end. It was also visibly older.

Kenny has been leader for 15 years, and Taoiseach for six. While he was in government, Fianna Fáil recovered electorally, to get really back in contention.

Fine Gael knew that, and it was part of their calculation in choosing a new leader. But for so long as Enda was there, the Fianna Fáil offering was as fresh, as available elsewhere.

But Fine Gael now is reshuffled and refreshed. It’s ahead too. It has a capacity beyond the mere fact of government to draw the spotlight towards itself.

It is in apparent possession of the political terrain. Never mind that landmines litter the ground beneath its feet. That’s a fact of government.

Watch more warily how the Taoiseach reacts, necessarily at some speed, when one of them explodes. The Frances Fitzgerald fiasco was not his finest hour.

But when all is said and done, Fine Gael goes into the new year as well set as can be expected. Momentum is now theirs to lose.

In Leo Varadkar, Fine Gael found a head of government who was then the youngest in the European Union. Time and tide wait for no man, however.

That laurel has already withered.

More importantly in Varadkar, Fine Gael has a leader who in different ways can continually command something between attention and curiosity.

His capacity to position himself as much as an observer as a participant in the discharge of his own responsibilities served him well in keeping promise alive on his way up.

Now that he is in, he is surrounded by a core team of ministers who give the depth and width necessary to convey a sense of team.

On closer inspection, the team has several passengers. But in government it is ever thus, and it is enough.

Paschal Donohoe, Simon Coveney and Eoghan Murphy convey energy. They don’t drop the ball on important issues.

A little to the side, Richard Bruton, now the only survivor in government of Fine Gael’s previous tenure in office, can act out gravitas.

Regina Doherty can attack. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it is a necessary political instrument.

Fianna Fáil, in contrast, is not old, but it is tired. There is no political drudgery like opposition.

The prospect of entering an eighth year of it in February is not enticing for them. That was Fine Gael in 2004.

Grind and slog was written on their every facial muscle. But then, an election was years away. Now if even a year or more away, it’s relatively imminent. So they must be ready.

Concentrating more on managing his party than developing and selling its message, Micheál Martin has eschewed a radical frontbench reshuffle. It shows. There are three major challenges for the party, housing, health and Dublin.

Then there is the meta-issue of the economy. That is a mix of critically important concerns and a sense of place inside the M50.

You need policies, and you need voices that resonate on the key issues in the right place. You also need energy. Since Fine Gael reshuffled and refreshed, Fianna Fáil is being beaten to the ball too often.

The party benefited richly from Fine Gael incompetence in advance of the local elections in 2014, and the general election of 2016.

But that’s a gift that won’t necessarily keep giving. After the next election Fianna Fáil will either go into government, or be taken over by new management. Nothing stays the same.

Given the length of service in their current roles, and obvious capacity to take on new challenges, bringing in new voices to replace Billy Kelleher in Health, and Barry Cowen in Housing seem obvious options.

Having put newly-arrived TD Stephen Donnelly into Brexit, Darragh O’Brien is politically side-lined in Foreign Affairs. Northern Ireland is a critically important issue but its not the one an election will be fought over.

O’Brien is an assertive Dublin voice who can speak to generation rent, and be a credible national voice in the political conversation in Dublin where housing is where it’s at politically.

On the economy Martin needs to ensure the public hears more from Michael McGrath. Others down the field, including Niamh Smyth, James Lawless and James Browne, have more to offer.

A previously prominent Niall Collins has virtually disappeared in Business, Enterprise and Innovation. When you are operating on narrow margins and time is tight, that is a lot of slack.

The ground war and candidate selection in the constituencies is being meticulously prepared for. The real war for the two main parties is, as ever, between themselves.

Short of extraordinary events, there is a short shortlist of potential gains for both. The message matters, and effective messengers are essential.

A reluctance to reshuffle is hardly based on a calculation that some spokespersons are too big to fail?

There is the added calculation that the leadership’s leverage is better used in saddling them with real contenders as second candidates in their constituency, rather than upset the apple cart at the front bench in Dublin.

It’s a Hobson’s choice but it is also a real test of leadership. The election in 2016 was about recovery for Fianna Fáil. The next one is about government. A key criteria for power is the calculation and indifference required to use it.

Enda Kenny was made by his internal opponents, who transformed him into a contender. Varadkar may have disappointed some supporters on arrival into the Taoiseach’s office, but he did enough. The big jobs changed hands. The look and feel is fundamentally different.

In circumstances where voters will certainly punish whoever unnecessarily causes an election, Fianna Fáil TDs need to settle down, and slow walk this government to its conclusion.

There need be no rush to review the current arrangement until after the next budget. The fact of it lapsing doesn’t mean an immediate election. There will be little rush out of Leinster House in the middle of winter.

Fianna Fáil right now doesn’t have a winning team or theme. Time has outran the usefulness of what was its essential purpose, namely marking the government, as best you could, with the personnel available.

There have been two fundamental changes since. Firstly government has retooled. Short of them making a hames of something, they are now more difficult to mark.

Secondly, Micheál Martin has more personnel choices in this Dáil, than in the last. Some need the opportunity of new challenges. Others are clearly able for bigger ones. The biggest challenge then is for the party leader.

The real war for the two main parties is, as ever, between themselves


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