From here on, it’s the Leo and Martin show
THE leaders of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will fight like gladiators in an arena through the next general election campaign. And the next taoiseach will be either Leo Varadkar or Micheál Martin – both are head and shoulders above, and hungrier than, any competitor to lead their party.
They currently command the two parties that have dominated Irish politics through the four generations since independence.
That intense scrutiny of the leaders will also provide a rare opportunity to study the traditions and ethos of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.
Micheál Martin is the school teacher son of a bus driver; the Fianna Fáil leader still lives in the same three-bedroom semi-d in Cork he bought after his marriage 30 years ago – and he also is a totem of traditional family and community values. Leo Varadkar is a doctor who is the son of a doctor, a champion of the comfortable middle class who respects his entrepreneurial, property-owning peers – and one of the first openly gay heads of government in the world.
They are as different as chalk and cheese but Varadkar and Martin share a talent for leadership that is noticeably absent in their rivals.
Martin is bringing Fianna Fáil back to where it traditionally saw itself: representatives of the squeezed middle – the real-life Labour Party. And he reinforces his party’s social democratic creed through the Confidence and Supply deal that staunches the Government’s excesses. Martin was also ahead of his party and in tune with the 66% in the referendum who voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment last year.
Varadkar swaggered to an economic boom and sauntered through a couple of socially progressive referendums – and that helped mask the crises in housing and the health service in the 19-months since he was elected Taoiseach. His personal popularity helps buoy up the party’s figures in opinion polls – and his ministers don’t know if he will shuffle the Government before or after the elections on May 24. Fianna Fáil hopes to take three seats in the EU parliament – they won a single seat in 2014 – and Fine Gael wants to retain their four.
But the European and local elections will be training day for the general election that could come late this year but more likely next year. The Government’s biggest worry is something they can do little to influence – Brexit. A no-deal Brexit puts the State in serious jeopardy – and the Government’s apparently omnipotent young leader knows he will be blamed if it goes wrong. And then there’s the nightmare of pay hikes and strikes in the public service.
There is also the threat that dare not speak its name: a recession. Academics say the cyclical nature of the economy means that now when the global recovery is in its 10th year, a downturn is overdue. Voters are unlikely to vote for a party seeking a third term in office with a slump looming.
MARTIN has been criticised in his own party for continuing to extend the Confidence and Supply deal to the Government while getting nothing of value in return. But he is buying time – time to dim the public’s memory of Fianna Fáil’s responsibility for the 2008 crash. Above all, Martin needs more time to grow voters’ frustration at FG governments while Leo Varadkar showboats in his search for an historic third term.
The tinsel has blown off Mary Lou McDonald’s leadership of Sinn Féin – reflected in their shop-soiled presidential election. Now the two bigger parties have a 60% share of the vote between them (Fine Gael on 31% and Fianna Fáil with 29%, according to the most recent poll). Fianna Fáil’s share of the vote has increased by 11.6% since the 2011 general election, while Fine Gael’s support has fallen by 5.1 per cent in the same period.
It will be fascinating to see if Irish voters are more persuaded by Martin’s cautious left-of-centre safety net or Varadkar’s promise of tax cuts and the sort of self-help that defines Fine Gael. Or maybe the electorate will vote for another spin on the merry-go-round – a Fine Fáil or Fianna Gael partnership in government. But there will be no consolation prize for the loser – although Leo Varadkar, who only became leader in 2017, is better placed to weather the ignominy of defeat than Micheál Martin.
It was hard to miss the swastika painted on the synagogue in Dublin’s Terenure but harder to detect any public protest – although former minister Lucinda Creighton did complain about it. Police are investigating antiJewish hate crime in the British Labour Party and a wave of anti-Semitism is sweeping Europe. There’s a lot of anti-Jewish sentiment here wrapped in anti-Israel protest.