2017 was one of the most exciting year ends for politics in the Republic in recent memory. In Late November, the fallout from the Sergeant McCabe drama reached its crescendo which led to an incredible game of brinkmanship between Leo Varadkar and Michael Martin. Initially, Fianna Fail went for blood and when Leo publicly backed Frances Fitzgerald it seemed the government’s confidence and supply was teetering on the edge of a political precipice.
An election at that time would have been very, very tight and could have gone either way. Michael Martin had publicly announced that he would not enter coalition with Sinn Fein but I think if the numbers had been right at that time, it could well have happened.
I think it was ultimately fortunate for Fine Gael that two further incriminatory emails were found that realistically made Frances Fitzgerald’s position untenable. While Fine Gael maintained their public position that her resignation was regrettable and unfair, I’m sure there were some sighs of relief around Fine Gael HQ. In Leo’s words;
“So, it is with deep regret that I have accepted her resignation. It is my strong view that a good woman is leaving office without getting a full and fair hearing.”
As I wrote about then, the Brexit talks could not have come at a better time for Fine Gael, in the direct aftermath of the aforementioned scandal. The unequivocal backing given to the Irish government allowed Leo Varadkar to be bullish and stand firm on the long held Irish positions. It played very well with the Irish public and was a change from the cautious approach of Enda Kenny who, at times, has been perceived as a lap dog of the European leaders.
By the time an agreement was finally reached that accommodated all sides and allowed the talks to proceed to Phase Two, Fine Gael had already enjoyed a boost in popularity which was reflected in the polls at the time. They reached 36% in an Ipsos MRBI/Irish Times, their highest in over two years. It definitely allowed Fine Gael to finish the year on a high and gave the opposition parties plenty of food for thought.
So far in 2018, the public’s focus has shifted to more local issues with healthcare and housing back on the agenda. In these areas, Fina Gael have not performed as well as could be expected and it offers opportunities for both Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein to challenge current government policies and offer alternatives. As always, in Fianna Fail’s case it is a little more challenging as they are propping up the government through the C&S agreement.
Michael Martin has done a decent job over the last eighteen months of differentiating Fianna Fail’s position from those of Fine Gael, despite being complicit in any piece of legislation that has been passed. I have mentioned already that it was very difficult to do so in Brexit talks as the public were quite united behind Leo Varadkar, here even Sinn Fein’s criticism of the government approach was muted. When the talks resume in March, Fianna Fail will again struggle for relevancy.
The Eight Amendment debate has really captured the media’s attention currently. It has probably overtaken healthcare and housing for many as the key issue facing the parties today. While no referendum has currently been set, the debate about what is on the ballot paper and who supports what is already raging.
Sinn Fein as a party have come out quite strongly for a replace motion that, at the very least, makes changes to the current wording and offers more rights to women. There have been dissidents to this policy, most notably Peader Tiobin in Meath West.
Fine Gael TD’s have mostly come out in favour of some sort of repeal or replace motion. Interestingly, Varadkar has not publicly stated his position yet. It would be a political bombshell if he came out in favour of keeping the Eight amendment and could even put his position as party leader in doubt. I believe he will offer a very nuanced opinion soon, that gives him enough room to manoeuvre without totally alienating the ardent repealers in his party, with the likes of Kate O’Connell making passionate speeches against it recently with memorable quotes like;
“It is when we have been at our most Catholic in Ireland that we have been at our least Christian,….Irish women were quite literally enslaved in an act of church and State collusion that can be honestly characterised as nothing other than sexual apartheid,…….Their babies were sold like puppies to foreign homes or enslaved in industrial schools to be preyed upon by those in power wielding authority”
However, Fianna Fail are the most intriguing party to analyse on this issue. At the Ard Fheis last October, the party came out quite strongly against repealing the Eight Amendment. With estimates of the no repeal motion being passed by a ratio of 5/6 to 1, it is incredible that Michael Martin has now publicly backed repealing the Eight and going as far as to back abortion on demand for the first twelve weeks of pregnancy.
The two favourites to be the next Fianna Fail leader, Michael McGrath and Dara Calleary, have both openly opposed Michal Martin’s stance on this. I think Michal Martin is greatly concerned about being perceived as the socially conservative party in Irish politics.
It would open Fianna Fail to attack on both flanks from 1) fiscally conservative but socially liberal voters who may swing to Fine Gael and 2) socially liberal, nationalist voters who now see Sinn Fein as a better fit for their views.
I think it’s fair to say that, at the very least, Michael Martin has staked his political future on the Eight being repealed or replaced. It this isn’t the case the knives may come immediately. Even if it passes though, his authority has now been publicly questioned and unless Fianna Fail manage to close the gap to Fine Gael by the end of the year I can see a leadership challenge emerge.
Mary Lou McDonald is now the President-Elect of Sinn Fein. Opinions vary on whether Sinn Fein see an immediate boost in the polls from this. I think it will take time, as plenty of media outlets and political commentators have already implied that this is only a superficial change.
Mary Lou McDonald needs a catalyst to really show that Sinn Fein is her party now. An issue that she can directly lead and take on the government over. She nearly had it over the Frances Fitzgerald issue, before Michael Martin shrewdly made it his own.
She is an excellent debater and she is able to hold her own in most Dail exchanges. I see Fine Gael as the leading party over the next eighteen months at least. The key challenge for Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein is to convince the public that they are the viable alternative. Currently, Fianna Fail hold a considerable lead in the polls (see latest from January 21st below) but may struggle on a whole host of issues as previously discussed.
Finally, on a 2018 election I think the chances of this happening have greatly receded since December. This is reflected in betting odds where it has dropped from 1/8 to 4/7. Fianna Fail will not call an election while they are behind in the polls. Equally, Fine Gael do not need to and will see 2018 as an opportunity to enhance their reputation on housing (note the newly announced first buyer’s scheme) as well as benefitting from any available good will on the Eight Referendum and Brexit outcomes that appear favourable to Ireland.
2018 will be a very interesting year and the dynamics between all three main parties will evolve fluidly over different issues. Fine Gael do look slightly unassailable currently in terms of most seats in a General Election. That being said, they were on their almost on their knees as recently as November and may find themselves sin a similar position again if the key events of 2018 do not go their way. An increasingly desperate Michael Martin and a newly emboldened Mary Lou McDonald will be waiting in the wings for any possible path to power…