Not enough jobs for the boys as FF back in power

Few new lead­ers of gov­ern­ment have suf­fered such a back­lash as Mar­tin

The Irish Times - - Home News - Pat Leahy

The mak­ing of a taoiseach is a solemn event, but it is usu­ally gar­nished with a good deal of in­for­mal­ity and emo­tion.

Once the vote of the Dáil has taken place, the nom­i­nee for taoiseach trav­els to Áras an Uachtaráin on the jour­ney that will change their life.

The pres­i­dent and the in­com­ing taoiseach are well-schooled be­fore­hand by of­fi­cials in the nec­es­sary pro­to­col – the hand­shakes, the pos­ing for of­fi­cial pho­to­graphs, the pre­sen­ta­tion of the seal, the sign­ing of the of­fi­cial doc­u­ments and so on.

Out of sight of the cam­eras, though, squashed into the room be­hind the vel­vet rope, there is usu­ally a gag­gle of fam­ily and staff, ex­cit­edly wit­ness­ing the cer­e­mo­ni­als. Ap­plause and oc­ca­sion­ally ya­hoo­ing have been known to break out, say peo­ple who have at­tended in the past.

But there was no ap­plause last Satur­day when Micheál Mar­tin be­came the 15th man to be­come the elected leader of the coun­try. There was no back­slap­ping, no hand­shak­ing, no hugs.

There was a friendly en­counter be­tween two old po­lit­i­cal col­leagues – the Pres­i­dent and the new Taoiseach have al­ways got on well since the days Labour was in gov­ern­ment with Fianna Fáil in the early 1990s – and the cer­e­mony was ef­fi­ciently con­ducted. There was time for a cup of tea and a half an hour of of­fi­cial Pres­i­dent-meets-Taoiseach dis­cus­sions. But not much craic.

Even later, when the new Cab­i­net was for­mally ap­pointed by the Pres­i­dent in Dublin Cas­tle – the venue cho­sen in­stead of the Áras be­cause it al­lowed for so­cial dis­tanc­ing – and a reception of sorts fol­lowed, it was strained enough. The Taoiseach buzzed around, point­edly mak­ing con­ver­sa­tion with his new Fine Gael and Green col­leagues, al­ways from a so­cial dis­tance. Like the gov­ern­men­tal pro­gramme which the new ad­min­is­tra­tion be­gan im­ple­ment­ing this week, the pan­demic over­shad­owed ev­ery­thing. Or, at least, that’s what ev­ery­one thought.

Dis­ap­point­ment

By the fol­low­ing morn­ing how­ever, there was an­other pan­demic – one of dis­af­fec­tion and dis­ap­point­ment – rag­ing across Co Mayo, and the broader western, north­west­ern and mid-west re­gions.

Dara Cal­leary’s anger at Mar­tin’s fail­ure to nom­i­nate him to a full Cab­i­net post, opt­ing in­stead to make the Mayo TD his chief whip, was ob­vi­ous to all his col­leagues at the reception. By the next day, it was ob­vi­ous to ev­ery­one else. The Sun­day pa­pers were full of it. Then the Mon­day pa­pers were as well. Broad­cast­ers took the tem­per­a­ture on the streets of Bal­lina; un­sea­son­ably hot. A dis­grace, a snub, an in­sult. Take your pick.

One lo­cal cumann stal­wart warned the Taoiseach not to show his face in Mayo. Sure, he would be run out of the place.

By Mon­day evening, Cal­leary him­self – per­haps re­al­is­ing that the point had been made and the con­tro­versy was do­ing him and his party no favours – sought to move on.

This time, wisely, the three party lead­ers de­cided to keep each other in­formed of their ap­point­ments, though that de­layed things. Even­tu­ally, on Wed­nes­day, the list was set­tled.

If Mar­tin was seek­ing to pour oil on trou­bled wa­ters, there was a bunch of lads wait­ing to throw a match on it.

Jim O’Callaghan, the for­mer jus­tice spokesman whose re­la­tions with the party leader have been sun­dered in re­cent months, was of­fered a ju­nior role at the Depart­ment of Jus­tice but turned it down.

On the Fine Gael side, Joe McHugh, freshly de­prived of a Cab­i­net role, also de­clined to join the ranks of the sec­ond tier. Though what­ever grum­bling there was in Fine Gael was kept in-house. Not so in Fianna Fáil. Lim­er­ick was up in arms over the omis­sion of Wil­lie O’Dea; Sligo over Mark MacSharry; Cork North West over for­mer whip Michael Moyni­han’s fail­ure to make the cut. No taoiseach ever has enough jobs to keep peo­ple happy, but few have suf­fered such a back­lash as Mar­tin.

By Wed­nes­day evening, four days into the new gov­ern­ment, this did not look like an ad­min­is­tra­tion that had hit the ground run­ning. Any­thing but.

What was ac­tu­ally go­ing on in Gov­ern­ment – ac­cord­ing to sev­eral peo­ple who moved jobs this week – was what al­ways hap­pens in the early days of a new ad­min­is­tra­tion: a mad scram­ble. For of­fice ac­com­mo­da­tion, for fa­cil­i­ties, staff, brief­ings, in­for­ma­tion, di­rec­tion, prac­ti­cal­i­ties and pol­icy.

“I think it took me three days to get an email ad­dress,” wailed one staffer.

Min­is­ters ar­rived in their new de­part­ments on Mon­day to meet their se­nior staff, but some of the de­part­ments had been sub­stan­tially re-en­gi­neered, and it wasn’t clear which se­nior of­fi­cials were go­ing and which were stay­ing. The re­or­gan­i­sa­tion of de­part­ments has to be on a pro­vi­sional ba­sis un­til leg­is­la­tion is passed to give it le­gal ef­fect, but peo­ple still had to move im­me­di­ately.

Hel­ter skel­ter

In an­other depart­ment, a Min­is­ter was warned not to let the sys­tem – ie, the Depart­ment of the Taoiseach – im­pose a new sec­re­tary gen­eral on him un­til he had a chance to get to know the depart­ment. It was hel­ter skel­ter stuff.

Min­is­ters were buried un­der an avalanche of brief­ing doc­u­ments, and also sought oral pre­sen­ta­tions from their se­nior of­fi­cials, con­scious that in the age of the Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act, many of the most sen­si­tive brief­ings are not com­mit­ted to pa­per. Mean­while, at the cen­tre of gov­ern­ment, the new Taoiseach was set­tling in to a hec­tic round of brief­ings. A se­lec­tion of his di­ary en­tries from Mon­day gives a flavour of the pace.

First, a brief­ing with Mar­tin Fraser, his top of­fi­cial and re­spon­si­ble for the co­or­di­na­tion of gov­ern­ment work that ends up at Cab­i­net; EU and North­ern Ire­land brief­ings with John Cal­li­nan, the sec­ond sec­re­tary gen­eral at the Taoiseach’s depart­ment and re­spon­si­ble for Brexit; a meet­ing of the Cab­i­net at Dublin Cas­tle; a meet­ing with At­tor­ney Gen­eral Paul Gal­lagher about the new gov­ern­ment’s leg­isla­tive pro­gramme, with a par­tic­u­lar fo­cus on the first 100 days; a meet­ing with Min­is­ter for Fi­nance Paschal Dono­hoe for eco­nomic brief­ing; a meet­ing with the chief med­i­cal of­fi­cer Tony Holo­han for brief­ing on Covid-19.

Party lead­ers

The fol­low­ing day – Tues­day – there were tele­phone calls with Euro­pean Com­mis­sion pres­i­dent Ur­sula von der Leyen, EU chief Brexit ne­go­tia­tor Michel Barnier and Bri­tish prime min­is­ter Boris John­son, as well as an­other brief­ing with Fraser and a meet­ing with the other two party lead­ers about the ju­nior min­is­ters.

And so on for the rest of the week. But how much ice does that cut in Bal­lina? Lit­tle enough.

One of the rea­sons why Fianna Fáil was his­tor­i­cally suc­cess­ful is that it didn’t let the busi­ness of gov­ern­ment in­ter­fere too much with the busi­ness of pol­i­tics.

It has been a long time since the party was in power; some lessons, it ap­pears, will have to be re­learned.

‘‘ One lo­cal cumann stal­wart warned the Taoiseach not to show his face in Mayo. Sure, he would be run out of the place

As Hem­ing­way said about go­ing bankrupt, the change of gov­ern­ment came grad­u­ally, then sud­denly, last week­end. The nov­elty of the tri­par­tite ad­min­is­tra­tion and the Op­po­si­tion that faces it will soon wane. It was Leo Varad­kar who once said that a Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael coali­tion would be like same-sex mar­riage: a bit strange at first, but pretty quickly ev­ery­one would get used to it and won­der what all the fuss had been about. But the changes this new struc­ture and po­lit­i­cal com­pe­ti­tion brings to our pol­i­tics will take some time to be­come fully ap­par­ent. In the mean­time, here are five things that will I think be im­por­tant in our pol­i­tics in the short and medium-term fu­ture.

1. Micheál Mar­tin is in a hurry

Mar­tin has been a TD for 31 years; this is his fifth Cab­i­net. He knows you’re sup­posed to have a min­is­ter from the West. He knows he was mak­ing en­e­mies in his own party with this week’s ap­point­ments, and he knows he had plenty of them to start with. But other things were more im­por­tant to him. You can be­lieve he is a ditherer, or ut­terly self­ish and ruth­less; but not both.

Mar­tin’s over­all po­lit­i­cal strat­egy is more im­por­tant to him than keep­ing his TDs happy. It is to make mea­sur­able, tan­gi­ble progress on health and hous­ing and show peo­ple that Fianna Fáil in gov­ern­ment has made a dif­fer­ence. With this in mind, new Min­is­ters Darragh O’Brien and Stephen Don­nelly can ex­pect heavy over­sight from the cen­tre of Gov­ern­ment. Mar­tin has 2½ years to make a go of it. He could ask Leo Varad­kar how quickly that time will pass.

2. Sinn Féin has a huge po­lit­i­cal op­por­tu­nity

This is not just about lead­ing the Op­po­si­tion, with all the clout and me­dia ex­po­sure than comes with that, though that is cer­tainly part of it. It is also about the way eco­nomic and so­cial con­di­tions are go­ing to de­velop over the next year. As David McWil­liams and oth­ers have pointed out, young peo­ple are go­ing to be es­pe­cially badly hit by the eco­nomic ef­fects of the pan­demic. Their jobs – in hos­pi­tal­ity, re­tail and so on – are first in the fir­ing line. The spe­cial pan­demic so­cial wel­fare ar­range­ments won’t con­tinue in­def­i­nitely (there’s a big dif­fer­ence be­tween ¤200 a week and ¤350) and while house prices

‘‘

Mar­tin’s over­all po­lit­i­cal strat­egy is more im­por­tant to him than keep­ing his TDs happy

and rents might come down, that won’t be any good to young peo­ple who have lost their jobs. And, as polling an­a­lyst Kevin Cun­ning­ham re­minded us on the In­side Pol­i­tics pod­cast this week, these are pre­cisely the peo­ple to whom Sinn Féin speaks, and who look to Sinn Féin to speak for them. Don’t be sur­prised if Sinn Féin is the most pop­u­lar party in the State be­fore long, es­pe­cially once the new Gov­ern­ment be­gins to make those tough de­ci­sions ev­ery­one talked about be­fore the Gov­ern­ment was formed.

3. But Mary Lou Mc­Don­ald won’t get it all her own way

There will be (is this ironic?) fierce com­pe­ti­tion among the par­ties of the left over who is the fiercest critic of the gov­ern­ment. Rise TD Paul Mur­phy was pos­i­tively rel­ish­ing the prospect of it be­ing

“one of the most hated gov­ern­ments ever” even be­fore it had taken of­fice. When it is not abus­ing poor High Court judge Garret Si­mons as “a hench­man for the po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment”, Peo­ple Be­fore Profit is tar­get­ing Sinn Féin for its “em­brace of neo-lib­eral poli­cies” in the North.

Sinn Féin – as the of­fi­cial lead­ers of the Op­po­si­tion – will get more scru­tiny than hereto­fore. As we saw this week, when it was taken to task for a Cum­mings-es­que dis­play of do-as-we-say-not-as-we-do at Bobby Storey’s fu­neral, it will not find that con­ge­nial. The party’s army of on­line sup­port­ers, al­ways ready to ad­min­is­ter – in the phrase of the week on Twit­ter – “pun­ish­ment tweet­ings” to those dar­ing to crit­i­cise, might not like that. But tough. Power, re­spon­si­bil­ity, and all that.

4. The ‘Maschal’ axis is vi­tal

The re­la­tion­ship be­tween the three party lead­ers will set the tone for co-op­er­a­tion (or lack of it) in Gov­ern­ment, but, for the ad­min­is­tra­tion to func­tion, the Mer­rion Street axis be­tween the Depart­ment of Fi­nance and the Depart­ment of Pub­lic Ex­pen­di­ture – and their Min­is­ters Paschal Dono­hoe and Michael McGrath (aka “Maschal”) – is es­sen­tial. In fact, the coali­tion agree­ment owes much to the re­la­tion­ship the two men have built over re­cent years, and the com­mon pur­pose they have shaped in re­cent months. It might not be a po­lit­i­cal bromance, but it is a solid foun­da­tion for the bud­getary de­ci­sions to come, what­ever you think of their mer­its. In his first in­ter­view on RTÉ, Taoiseach Micheál Mar­tin was asked if he could prom­ise there would be no re­turn to aus­ter­ity un­der this Gov­ern­ment. He stepped around the ques­tion, like a danc­ing winger. Ask Dono­hoe or McGrath and they’ll say, “That’s not our in­ten­tion.” But the truth is no gov­ern­ment can prom­ise it. You play the hand you’re dealt.

5. Pol­i­tics has changed, but not com­pletely

Some things re­main the same. Lo­cal­ism re­mains im­por­tant; Ir­ish pol­i­tics wants its lo­cal chief­tains. The Fianna Fáil par­lia­men­tary party re­mains chron­i­cally undis­ci­plined (Fine Gael culled 13 min­is­ters and ig­nored a dozen hope­ful TDs with barely a peep out of them). Politi­cians will scram­ble for jobs for them­selves; the pub­lic will re­main largely un­moved. Or­gan­ised spe­cial in­ter­est groups – pub­li­cans, the tourist in­dus­try, public­sec­tor unions, to name only three who flexed their mus­cles this week – have huge power in Ir­ish pol­i­tics. They will con­tinue to wield it in their mem­bers’ in­ter­ests.

The chal­lenge for this gov­ern­ment re­mains un­changed, too, from all its pre­de­ces­sors: to iden­tify, amid all this sturm und drang, where is the na­tional in­ter­est, and, hav­ing done so com­pe­tently and hon­estly, to make pol­i­tics work to de­liver it. Sim­ple, re­ally.

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