FF Rebels may have Cancelled Martin’s Departure for now, but Arlene Foster was Shown no Mercy?

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  • FF rebels have to learn new Covid political rules – no heaves while people lie dying

My day off at the races was already going badly when I got a call from a politician.

I was backing slow racehorses at the Curragh and now I had a contact querying why his favoured story hadn’t got a better show.

My reply, I believed, had a stark, brutal logic: ‘Michael Jackson died for f***’s sake.’

The politician shouted: ‘Sure who gives a f*** about him?’

Forget the confrontational language, of which I’m ashamed, we remain friends. For on the other end of the phone was one of the smartest in the political fraternity speaking.

Taoiseach Micheal Martin
Taoiseach Micheal Martin also issued a blow to pubs by confirming that takeaway pints would not be a feature of this lockdown, following issues raised in previous lockdowns. Pic: Julien Behal Photography

The exchange reveals that for a group of people who rely on the media much as plants do water there is a surprising but inalienable truth – politicians do not understand the media, even the most clever ones.

For the news, with its incomprehensible currents and many hidden reefs, is barely understood by journalists. Yet the news is our profession, so we know the safe shipping channels. There are some who will lead politicians onto the rocks.

Those Fianna Fáil TDs who chose the most recent news cycle to publicly discuss the leadership of their party committed a grievous error. And the savagery of the backlash stunned them.

Now, if there was any nascent plot against Taoiseach Micheál Martin’s leadership being formulated, it has surely been strangled in the cradle. Any efforts to prepare the ground for succession along a timeline that differs from Mr Martin’s must wait for the end of the Covid-19 crisis.

Taoiseach Micheal Martin
Pic: Julien Behal Photography

Their moves were criticised by their still new Coalition colleagues publicly. Fine Gael senator Regina Doherty said that the timing was inappropriate as the ‘Irish people are sick with worry’. She said, with understatement, that they had not ‘got their finger on the pulse on the pulse of the nation’.

The discussion started with Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien who, in saying that Mr Martin should continue as leader of the party through the next election, stated his own future leadership ambitions.

Former agriculture minister Barry Cowen then came out and outlined an alternative path – that Mr Martin should not remain on when he finishes as Taoiseach in December 2022. Then eternal dissident Marc MacSharry continued the discussion along with Malcolm Byrne on Monday.

More cool-headed operators, Minister for State Niall Collins and Agriculture Committee chairman Jackie Cahill, said on their local radio stations that the matter was not up for discussion during Covid.

Fianna Fail TD Marc MacSharry Pic: RollingNews.ie

So as the Covid figures spiralled out control this week a number of consequences for those who chose to discuss leadership became apparent.

Firstly, there are unique, political rules during the Covid-19 pandemic. In Britain, after World War II there grew an all-encompassing question: ‘What did your father do during the war?’

As citizens we will have personal reckonings over how we behaved. But politicians, most of all, will answer for their actions on an ongoing basis and when this is all over in the public arena. So there was damage to personal political reputations.

Those involved will say they were only answering questions put to them, but political antennae must be acutely sensitive right now. People are dying – they are missing out on work due to the virus itself or experiencing redundancy. Children are at home from school, grandparents isolated. There will be no public forgiveness – just ask Dara Calleary and Phil Hogan.

Barry Cowen TD Photo Gareth Chaney Collins

The second consequence is that the cause of dissidents has been put back, literally years. Mr Cowen has made his move, and he cannot make it again for some time.

The absence of Hamlet from this particular political tragedy also confirms that the timeline for succession is longer than many believed.

For the favourite potential successor of many parliamentary party members is Jim O’Callaghan. He remained silent on the leadership question this week, and has largely done so since Mr Martin became Taoiseach last June.

A ministerial supporter of Mr O’Callaghan told me last week, as the controversy unfolded, that they had spoken in the Convention Centre on the day Mr Martin was elected Taoiseach. He claimed Mr O’Callaghan said that there should be no talk of leadership until Covid-19 is dealt with. And we are two years away from this awful period in our history ending fully. There will, as I wrote last week, be an end and then there will be a Fianna Fáil leadership contest.

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A fallen behemoth Fianna Fáil may be, but still its internecine struggles attract a fascination that does not come with other political parties.

In the abstract, it is entertaining to discuss, we understand this. But it is quite another for the party’s public representatives to bring their ambitions out into the open at this time.

A number of the parliamentary party members said in off-the-record discussions that they want a Dublin leader. They believe that they need someone to politically challenge the Dublin-based Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar. That would mean that Darragh O’Brien, of the Fingal constituency, and Jim O’Callaghan, of Dublin Bay South, are indeed the favourites.

But, in tandem, the TDs and senators said they want to see that Dublin-based leader have the polish to challenge Mr Varadkar. These criteria would reduce the field further to top barrister and former Leinster rugby player Mr O’Callaghan.

Discussions with the mainly male political fraternity, I find, often carry intriguingly unintended omissions.

The second largest party – and they only trailed Fianna Fáil by one seat in the last election – is Sinn Féin. Fine Gael is the auld enemy.

Sinn Féin also has a Dublin-based leader, Mary Lou MacDonald, a well-heeled Southsider who represents Bertie Ahern’s old Dublin North constituency.

And she is a woman. Fianna Fáil had six female TDs before the last election and now it has five.

It and Fine Gael have damaging leadership deficiencies that go way beyond those they actually acknowledge. Fine Gael, with the grooming of

Helen McEntee and its greater accommodation of women, at least partially acknowledges how far behind it is.

Fianna Fáil doesn’t. If it does not understand the media, it should at least try to understand itself.

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