Martin won, Leo lost but he can reclaim some face with Brexit talks before the inevitable Spring election...
What a week. Irish politics is often drab, parochial and all too predictable. We aren’t often blessed with great politicians who can command the attention of the world or political events that have a global reach. For every Parnell, there is a Pat Rabbitte and most of our political crises end with a shrug of shoulders, a nudge and a wink or in extreme cases, a never-ending tribunal that produces non-criminal results years after people have stopped caring…
The last week has been different. We had high drama that captured the attention not only of the Irish public but of the global media. It was a perfect storm of brinkmanship between Ireland’s two most powerful politicians that brought the government to the edge of collapse. It also contained a human element in the abhorrent treatment of a good man, Maurice McCabe.
Too often, the issues that can divide politicians and governments are over theoretical or abstract points that seem to be part of a different, political universe. However, the allegation that a respected Minister, Frances Fitzgerald, allowed a whistle-blower to be wrongfully labelled a paedophile brought out anger and disgust in the Irish electorate.
To briefly summarise, the allegations of wrongdoing have floated around for quite a while over Frances Fitzgerald. It came to a head last Thursday when Sinn Fein tabled a motion of no confidence in the Dail after a barrage of criticism by Mary Lou McDonald. Michael Martin quickly realised that that there was anger within his own party over the behaviour of Mrs Fitzgerald and that he could not allow Sinn Fein to be the main opposition in this crisis. So, on Friday morning last Fianna Fail lodged their own motion of no confidence to be tabled this Tuesday. The Soldiers of Destiny had crossed the Rubicon and the nation held its breath.
The onus was initially put straight back on Leo Varadkar. Many believed he would cast Frances Fitzgerald aside as the motion passing would lead to a General Election right before Christmas. He didn’t, in fact he backed her to the hilt. It was a string and decisive counter attack that many labelled as Leo calling Martin’s bluff. Many Fine Gael TDs came out with vehement defences of Mrs Fitzgerald and claimed that Fianna Fail were playing political games at a crucial period of Brexit negotiations and that the Charleton Tribunal should be allowed to do its job, starting in January.
There were behind the scenes meetings over the weekend between the leaders and documents were exchanged. On Monday morning both sides held the same line and it looked like Michael Martin was going to force an election that he wouldn’t win. His future as leader was genuinely on the line with murmurs of discontent.
Then on final flop two more damaging emails emerged Monday evening. Fianna Fail finally had a winning hand. Frances Fitzgerald was finished and now Leo had to act to avert a backlash from the public. He took his time and looked indecisive but eventually on Tuesday morning Frances Fitzgerald resigned and the motion was withdrawn.
Varadkar has lost a lot of political capital. Many political pundits are incredulous as to why he continued to publicly back her after he became aware of the further emails on Saturday morning. It strikes of political naivety and a lack of experience.
I’m not his biggest fan but I think he can easily recover. He is fortunate enough that almost immediately after this debacle, the focus is right back on Brexit talks. He, along with Simon Coveney (the Minister for Foreign Affairs) have been firm but fair in holding the Irish position on vetoing progress to the next stage without concrete proposal on the Irish border question.
He benefits from the fact that the public and all the major parties agree on this. There is no potential for an attack at home as long as he holds strong. If he continues to do so and is able to gain favourable concessions from the British government (they have already acquiesced to the financial demands of the EU this week) Frances Fitzgerald and Maurice McCabe will be yesterday’s problem.
Michael Martin clearly won a great battle this week. However, it didn’t significantly enhance Fianna Fail’s political strength. They continue to prop up Fine Gael while having to defend against attack from Sinn Fein and their new leader, Mary Lou McDonald. The Supply and Confidence agreement looks damaged beyond repair. The onus is now on either Michael or Leo to call a Spring election but Fianna Fail are yet to move ahead of Fine Gael in poling (the next poll will be very, very interesting) and as Fianna Fail have ruled out a coalition with Sinn Fein, their political mobility is limited.
In summary, this was a bad week for Leo and Fine Gael but they have a lot more flexibility and potential upside in the next few weeks. Hannibal crushed the Roman Army at the Battle of Cannae and looked to be about to conquer Rome. However, he didn’t press his advantage and this eventually allowed the Romans to consolidate their position and strike back. Fianna Fail are a little reminiscent of that post victory Carthage army wandering around Italy without a clear plan. Unless Fine Gael completely collapse on the border or Mick Wallace/The Charleton Tribunal deliver further bombshells in the coming weeks this crisis may prove to be a footnote when the almost inevitable Spring election rolls around…