Johnny Fallon

Irish Political Commentator

Archive for the tag “Micheal Martin”

Leo Varadkar’s long game

Leadership is a tricky business. It takes many different forms and styles. With it comes power. However, if you want power you must be able to seize it. Strategising for such an eventuality takes patience, lots of it.

In early 2011 Miriam O’Callaghan stood on the Dail plinth with a stony faced Micheál Martin and asked him if he had got things wrong, quoting PJ Mara saying ‘You have to have the numbers’. Martin had just lost his challenge to Brian Cowen. The question overlooked one thing. No Fianna Fail leader has ever lost a motion of confidence in the party or been deposed at the pinnacle of a heave. No, a heave is a much more complex situation.

Richard Bruton, supported by Leo Varadkar found this out to their cost. It was a tough lesson. Bruton’s indecisiveness cost them the initiative. Then, when they lost they were surprised and had no plan for the aftermath. In a heave you must accept that in all likelihood, unless you get very lucky, you will not defeat the leader. The all out assault is merely a ploy to keep the Leader and all the party apparatus busy while you plan for what happens when you lose.

Leo Varadkar is not planning a heave. There is no need to at this point in time. He is however, planning for the future. He is setting out his stall as a politician and positioning himself for whatever the future may bring.

No matter who you are people eventually tire of you. We get bored of the same faces and same approaches. Without any doubt a day will come when ‘Enda Fatigue’ sets in in earnest. At that point people will tire of so much of what Enda brings. After Albert Reynolds FF could not wait to install the ‘lets all be friends’ approach of Bertie Ahern. After 14 years of compromise FF were rushing to the man seen as the ‘hard man’ Brian Cowen. Now sometimes leaders don’t turn out to be what you expect, but your perception when choosing them is everything.

After a bullish Michael Noonan, FG were eager for the far more personable Enda Kenny. When we tire of Enda we will want something very different. Varadkar is crafting an image. It’s a very seductive image for an Irish politician at this point. He is showing himself to be the opposite of Enda Kenny in almost every way, yet he is still Enda Kenny’s friend. He is not afraid of decisions. He is not afraid to admit if he gets things wrong or to revisit a proposal. He is loyal to his party but not to the point that he ignores faults within it or its history. He conveys an approach that is at ease with the media, at ease with questions and happy to argue a case.

He also conveys an image of strength. Not afraid to have an argument and not afraid of speaking out. A self confidence that is often lacking in many politicians. Leo is crafting and perfecting this image in the full knowledge that whenever people tire of Enda Kenny they will look to someone who embodies very different values.

The problem for Varadkar is that he still has a tough job to do in health. The system was a mess in 2011 and one of the great advantages James Reilly had was the general perception that anything would be an improvement because it could not get worse. Somehow he managed it though. Varadkar has a lot of cleaning up to do and Health has scuppered careers in the past. On the other hand if he manages to even take some small progress from the Department and aims for more modest victories he could be hailed as a hero. If that happens he will certainly be a force to be reckoned with.

The long game is always what’s important in politics. Enda Kenny will be watching young Varadkar and will know he is a very different opponent to many of his others. Fine Gael will be watching him closely as a party and the public perception of him. If the polls demand it then a party reacts. A knock may one day come at Leo’s door and he will be dragged (kicking, screaming and protesting of course) to centre stage for the good of the party. There is a lot to happen between now and then though and Leo would be well advised to keep a close eye on those around him. One thing never changes at cabinet, everybody is threatened by ambition. Enough small boys working together can overcome the big boy.

Fianna Fail – No pain, No Gain

A month or two after the 2011 general election I met with Micheál Martin. He was talking to everybody and anybody about Fianna Fail and what the future held for them. At that meeting I outlined two scenarios for his party. The first was a dramatic and sweeping change, brutally implemented, requiring steady nerves and much leadership. It was a strategy designed to use the still massive FF organisation and would see big changes in how political parties distribute power and would be fraught with rows and arguments. The advantage was that if it was successful it could return FF to the pinnacle of Irish politics in a relatively short period of time and possibly change how political parties worked for a long time to come. The downside was that if the leadership was not there or if the strategy failed, FF could be left worse than they were and might even disintegrate. The higher the stakes the bigger the prize if you win.

The second strategy was to ensure FF survival. This was the approach of steady caution. Taking time, discussing and not doing anything too dramatic. Some quick window dressing and nice speeches and let time do its work. The advantage of this was that it would ensure FF survival probably for at least 25/30 years. The downside was that with this approach FF would never regain its dominance of Irish politics, It could survive but it would spend the rest of it existence fighting with other growing parties, juggling the also ran tag, and making up numbers. Over time it would shed some of that big organisation as not ‘being necessary to modern politics’. Eventually it might even be subsumed into another party or disappear gradually, but not now. Its current existence would be assured.

From what I knew of the FF grassroots, back in the day, I was convinced they would want option 1. They would rather go down swinging with flames all about rather than be condemned to some political half life that they use to pity other parties for. Personally, I also felt it was a better approach because I despair of how all Irish political parties that once could have taught the world how to organise have slipped into a pattern of aping British and American politics and become nothing more than boring marketing strategies.

Anyway, I think everyone can see the route FF took. They are still with us. Have they dealt with the problems of the past or the economic accusations? Absolutely not. They think they have and want to move on but it’s just not true. Dealing with it means apportioning responsibility, identifying exact decisions and errors, and facing up to personal failings. That means rows. It means hurting people. They don’t feel strong enough to do that so they avoid any split by just not talking about it.

I also said publicly at the time that the problem with the cautious approach and the advice FF was taking was that Martin was keeping things upbeat while he was touring the grassroots and energising them. This in time helped to give FF a little mild poll boost. But quite clearly the same advisers would eventually tell FF to ‘stop navel gazing’ and get back out there. Martin duly obliged right on schedule. The very weakness so many predicted was then laid bare. If Martin was not touring the grassroots anymore, energising them, focusing them and promising new reforms, then who was? Who replaced Martin when he turned back to his job as a public figure? Amazingly nothing had changed internally except a cut in staff numbers due to resources. The only change that was much heralded was a shift to one member one vote. This was welcome but it had nothing to do with where FF went wrong. Their old internal voting system was not the issue. Bad decisions, too much concentration of power, and inflexibility at the top was. Did the rules for the parliamentary party change? No. Did the roles and responsibilities of its internal staff change? Only on the surface. The cautious approach demands continuity and ensuring that things don’t get to alien at stressful times. Therefore widespread change in how FF works was not possible. Survival is the name of the game.

FF now remains stagnant. It still has a decision to make about whether to continue on this current course or try to change. Micheal Martin has yet another Ard Fheis were people will be watching for signals. The only question that is really left to answer is whether anything of its old self remains within FF. Whether anyone has the courage to take of the swim rings and go for it. New policies are often hard to find for small parties, mostly because they lack the numbers. Right now FF is in that position. A parliamentary party and a few researchers that can fit into a room will only be able to come up with a limited amount of policy. Where FF has an advantage is that it still has a big organisation if only it knew what to do with it. Put simply if you want to know how to improve social welfare payments one of the best experts you can talk to is someone on a dole queue. If you want tax strategies or policies for business talk to people involved. FF has these within its ranks, but it has no real mechanism for them to assist with policy formulation. The inner circles continue, those in the know can influence but those who are not, sit on their hands waiting for something to do.

This weekend’s Ard Fheis will debate a lot of policy but most of it will be irrelevant to FF or its future. Once the event is over normal service resumes. The local and European elections will at least give members something to do. FF must try to hold what it has in these elections and on a very good day hope for a slight increase. The real test is after that. How quickly can FF find new candidates? It needs to identify at least 5 people that are ‘cabinet ready’ after these elections. People capable of going on TV without being star struck. People capable of leadership, people capable of arguing with a government minister at full tilt. The harsh reality is that the majority of this FF frontbench would not get a sniff at such a position back in the FF heyday. Indeed, despite all the fault and blame and venom that could be directed at members of the last cabinet it’s hard not to imagine that if the FF front bench today contained Micheal Martin, Brian Lenihan, Brian Cowen, Dermot Ahern, Noel Dempsey, Mary Hanafin and a few others it would still make a more impressive sight that what they have. Yes they could be blamed for all that went wrong but let’s face it FF still has to answer that anyway and if those figures were there such questions would be unavoidable and force their hand.

Ever since the 2011 general election Fianna Fail has one question to ask itself. What kind of future does it want? Ambition and desire shape actions. Increasingly grassroots are tiring of what they see as a return to normal business. Perhaps the party is happy where it is. Perhaps it will finally make a move to try regain ground. Whatever happens it needs to make up its mind. Sinn Fein may be struggling to advance too but it will not always be so. The government may not always have the bleak days ahead that it has had in the last few years. FF needs to stop hoping that others do stuff wrong and instead focus on themselves.

The Leaders – A Party animal or a lonely wallflower?

As the Dail recommences all eyes remain on the party leaders. The traditional winter bloodletting season could make for a bumpy ride, but how are each of our leaders fixed? Here, I take a quick look at their standing.

Enda Kenny – The Taoiseach would seem to be comfortable enough at first glance. To be fair to Enda he has settled into the job and for most people the accusation that he would embarrass himself is a distant memory. He may not be inspirational but he at least appears like a decent and able enough chap. When he is making one of those big speeches with lots of rhetoric, people actually quite like him. It’s not easy to be Taoiseach but Kenny has managed the battlefield quite well. His main problem remains that despite trying to reinvent his image, he always seems no more than one wrong word away from destroying it all. There are two major problems looming that Kenny has to deal with. The first is the Seanad referendum. He has personally invested a huge amount of political capital in this. It was seen as a ‘can’t lose’ referendum, but while still quietly confident there are a few nervous glances towards the polls on the government benches. If the referendum is passed, it gives Kenny a confidence boost and also the chance to spread out some more talk of reforms and change over the coming years. He will see it as a legacy impact for his term. However, should the referendum be lost then make no mistake it will cause rumblings among many who will see it as a personal failure of the Taoiseach. He needs a Yes vote badly. The second problem facing him is the Labour question. So far Enda has managed to tie Eamon Gilmore up in knots and keep him boxed in at every opportunity. Deep down, he knows that Gilmore may come knocking and need help to save his leadership or else a new Labour Leader might start flexing muscles. You don’t walk away from the job of Taoiseach and Enda knows that if Labour got it into their head that they could walk away, then he would be forced to make serious compromises to keep them on board. If this occurred, it will lead to the traditional grumbling in the larger party of any coalition that the tail is wagging the dog and that the Taoiseach has started saving his job ahead of his party. If that talk starts, it only ends one way. However, the job of Taoiseach is all about such decisions and challenges, Enda knows that well. He has started to shift within the party to secure his base. Figures like Phil Hogan and James Reilly no longer hold the influence over the Taoiseach that they once had and Enda may yet play all sides, including the long term game with the Reform Alliance, just to keep everyone sweet enough.

Eamon Gilmore – The Tánaiste continues to hang in there. He knows that he needs something to claim from the budget in order to give him a fighting chance. It’s likely he will get it but it won’t be major. Most accept that rather than €3.1 bn needing to be made up in the budget, the figure will be about €2.8 bn. This could allow Labour claim some victory. The real problem is that Eamon cannot really recover his personal strength. He remains leader because no one else really wants to take the job right now. That can change. Labour could leave him in situ until after the local elections, but this may ruin any chance of even a 2 or 3% recovery to save a few seats. It also means that Labour would need to look at Gilmores leadership next May/June. This timing is poor with another budget looming the following October. Another scenario is that potential rivals go with Eamon on the upcoming budget but do so while still grumbling. The budget gets passed and before Christmas, potential rivals blame its worst parts on Eamon’s failures and remove him. Allowing them some hope of even a tiny bounce before the locals and still saying that the time is too short to blame the new leader for a bad result. It also allows sufficient time for the new leader to talk tough and even look to renegotiate parts of the programme for government in advance of the budget next year. No matter what way one looks at it, Eamon Gilmore is no longer a leader in the real sense. He is on borrowed time, a bit like Haughey in November ’91 to Feb ’92: Everyone knew he was only there by the grace of others and it was only a matter of when.

Micheál Martin – The FF leader continues to wrestle his party and grapple to turn things around. He has had some success and a mild but soft recovery in the polls has calmed some early nerves. Serious questions still present themselves. At times Martin seems to lack the decisive will to make things happen. He avoids risks, doesn’t like doing things quickly and seems to follow the same backroom as his predecessors. He hasn’t shown any drastic change. At other times he goes to the opposite extreme, stifling debate, seeking to impose outcomes and trying to dominate proceedings. The abortion issue was the latest in that kind of cycle. There was only ever one outcome for FF in that debate and it was worrying that the Leader or those around him could not see that. This has led some to say that Martin is weak or in a weak position. Martin is not weak but he doesn’t always pick his fights well and a lack of foresight is more the problem. His position is safe enough for now. There is no value to FF in changing leader. In fact Martin could still do a huge favour as a former minister in leading the charge for openness and answers on the activities of the last cabinet and what happened around the table. He is still the best placed to engage with the Irish people on what the hell actually happened. Unfortunately like his predecessor Brian Cowen, he wants to move on rather than dwell on the past. FF might find dwelling on the past might be the best thing they could do right now. The local elections will be a test for Martin. FF needs to be in the mid 20s to hold what they have at local level, more or less. They seem on course for that. A slight increase would be taken as a big victory. Should the party numbers fall though, questions may come quickly.

Gerry Adams – It’s been another interesting year for Gerry. From his entertaining, if strange, twitter account, to the SF poll battle people continue to ponder what his future might hold. SF is doing well in the polls. If they got 19% in a general election it would be a massive achievement and major step forward. The problem is they are struggling to understand why they are not even higher, especially given the FF figure. My answer to that, as always, is organisation. SF is still building up theirs. Many do suggest however that Gerry is not the man to lead SF in this battle. He has struggled to impose himself on southern politics and to really show a genuine grasp of the debate. SF has been much better served by Doherty, Tobin and McDonald in this regard. SF may need the injection of new leadership to bring some impetus to the project. This carries two problems; the first is that SF needs to retain its strong link with the North. Can a southern leader do that? Secondly, SF still has to decide its path. The party is struggling to define its enemies in the same way as FF did many years ago. It does not really know whether it should be attacking its traditional rivals FG, or whether it needs to hit FF hard to stop any recovery or strike out at Labour to eat into their vote. SF is fighting battles on every front and eventually will have to pick a side and deal with each one by one. A new leader will be forced to accept that. Gerry helps them avoid it for now although even he seems increasingly uneasy about it. I don’t see SF changing leader this side of a general election unless they start to fall back in the polls and I don’t think that’s likely at this point. There is a problem for the general populace in identifying with Adams however. He reminds me more and more of De Valera in the 1950’s: there are stronger leaders in the ranks below, people perhaps better prepared for the new age, but he is a hero within the party, seen as a patriot and an icon and therefore nobody is really able to bring themselves to criticise him or say his time might be past. De Valera stayed a decade too long, will it be the same for Adams?

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