From here on, it’s the Leo and Martin show

The Irish Mail on Sunday - - COMMENT -

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.

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