Not enough jobs for the boys as FF back in power
Few new leaders of government have suffered such a backlash as Martin
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.
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.
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.
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.