With the Taoiseach 9,000 km away, Fianna Fáil backbenchers are not happy being brushed off
– 21 Jul 2022
A NUMBER OF backbench Fianna Fáil TDs have reacted angrily to comments made by the Taoiseach in Japan where he appeared to shrug off their concerns about the party by stating that voters will not thank them for “navel-gazing” during a cost-of-living crisis.
In recent days, a number of politicians have spoken out publicly about Micheál Martin, his leadership and the direction of the party.
John McGuinness, TD for Carlow-Kilkenny, said recently Micheál Martin should resign as party leader as he steps down from the role of Taoiseach at the end of the year.
Some in Fianna Fáil’s parliamentary party are becoming “anxious” about how close it is to Fine Gael, said McGuinness.
Separately, Dublin South-West TD John Lahart called for a review of the Programme for Government, stating that he doesn’t see Martin leading the party into the next general election.
Former party TD Marc MacSharry, who resigned from the party ten months ago – insisted on Newstalk’s Pat Kenny Show yesterday that Martin was running a “one-man show” and refusing to let members join in decision-making.
When suggested to him that the Taoiseach “doesn’t come across as dictatorial”, MacSharry said: “No he hides it very well indeed.”
“Fianna Fáil parliamentary policy is determined by focus groups under his control through FF headquarters and not, unfortunately, from the immense talent that is within the ranks of the FF frontbenchers,” he said.
It has also been stated by a number of backbenchers that they won’t vote to approve Leo Varadkar becoming Taoiseach if Martin stays on into next year.
All these comments made in the public forum come against the backdrop of a meeting between a group of 30 TDs and Senators who met without Government ministers or the Taoiseach to discuss the future of the party.
A number of sources within Fianna Fáil told The Journal privately that Martin is not taking backbenchers in his party seriously, that he is making a virtue of ignoring the parliamentary party, and that members are “completely demoralised”.
Speaking to reporters on his trip to Japan, the Taoiseach said:
“I don’t think Irish people would take too kindly to people navel-gazing or internal analysis when very serious issues have to be dealt with.
My entire energy and focus is on the cost-of-living package and the Budget right up to the end of September.
When the Taoiseach’s comments were put to them, one backbencher said: “I would have liked a more mature response from him than that.”
“I think it was a silly remark to make,” said another, who added that given the numbers that attended that backbenchers meeting, they would have assumed that they would be respected.
“It was disrespectful to say what he said yesterday, I think,” they said, adding that the meeting was not called to create a rift or to be part of a process that will lead to a heave, but that people were there for a lot of reasons.
“To talk about naval gazing? Why say that?” the deputy said, adding that one would think the party leader would take notice and try and understand some of the concerns being raised, both publicly and privately, and to try and work with them.
They said Martin should appreciate “the good faith, the good intentions and work with them”. Many people that attended the backbenchers meeting don’t all have the same opinion on what is wrong or how to fix it, but they are intent on putting forward proposals, they stated.
“If he [Micheál Martin] wants to reject those proposals or bat them away as insignificant or tell them they’re navel-gazing, then that’s a problem,” they concluded.
Another said that if Martin does not understand the vitriol and the heat on the ground he shouldn’t be in his position, stating that he needs to stand aside at Christmas.
They claimed there was no engagement between the leader and the members, stating that they only get a phone call from the leader if they have spoken out of turn in the media.
One TD said that, while MacSharry is sometimes described as a shock-jock in terms of the comments that he makes publically, many now within the party are starting to think that MacSharry was right all along.
Another Fianna Fáil politician, who seemed deflated by Martin’s comments, said the Taoiseach was “brushing them [backbenchers] aside like he always did”.
“He has no intention of listening to anyone. That’s always been his line,” they said.
“I don’t know what the answer is,” they added.
The mood among a number of backbenchers is that Martin’s comments “shows a complete disconnection with all of us”.
While they said that some members are speaking out publicly, others are going around “loudly muttering” about the lack of direction, lack of leadership and lack of connection between his leadership and the backbenchers.
Many noted that at the meeting of 30 held before the summer recess, a number of senators who had never spoken out before were now raising concerns.
They said two big fears emerged from that meeting of backbenchers – the fear of Sinn Féin getting into power and the fear of Leo Varadkar becoming Taoiseach again in December. There is a concern that Martin will “have lost all of his power” and “won’t be as effective as he was”.
A divide is emerging
Party sources state there are those that want to be in bed with Fine Gael and those that want to be in bed with Sinn Féin.
Like something that harks back to the past, it is believed that the divide emerging is something that is going to break Fianna Fáíl if Martin doesn’t intervene and do something about it.
“We’re getting this in the neck every single day, everywhere we go,” said one source, they said the people that were once loyal to the party are not there anymore.
“It’s like as if everyone is at a loose end bar Micheál,” said one Fianna Fáiler, who added that every time the Taoiseach says he will lead the party into the next general election it drives members “over the edge”.
So what next?
There was speculation last year of a heave against Martin being organised by backers of Dublin Bay South TD Jim O’Callaghan. However, it all fell asunder when O’Callaghan told RTÉ News that he wouldn’t be part of a plan to forcefully remove Martin as leader.
But is another heave on the cards?
Martin has dubbed the mutterings of a heave as speculation. Fianna Fáilers that spoke to this website said that over the summer months, they expect to see chatter ratcheted up a few notches, perhaps a death by a thousand cuts to Martin, as one put it, but most didn’t expect any real momentum in August.
September will be key. The backbencher group plans to meet again to discuss concerns early in the month. The meeting will be followed by the party’s annual think-in, the Budget will follow, along Fianna Fáil’s 80th Ard Fheis in the RDS.
While some that spoke to The Journal said that the sooner Martin departs as leader the better, others are not so sure the timing is right.
“I don’t think there’s a huge appetite for a change in leader,” said one Fianna Fáiler, who said they couldn’t think of the person that would replace him just yet.
While they said that is not to say that someone can’t emerge in the next 12 months, and that some people might emerge but need more time and experience, they couldn’t name an obvious successor to Martin right now.
They said that the group of backbenchers meeting might be a platform where a new leader does emerge, and while some names have been mooted, they do not think they are there yet.
The Taoiseach also said to reporters in Japan that he is “very clear” about the identity of Fianna Fáil and noted he has been a member of the party for a “long time”.
“So it is no big mystery to me the identity of Fianna Fáil and what it’s all about,” he added.
Some were unhappy with his comments, stating that the Taoiseach saying he knows the identity of Fianna Fáil is “farcical”.
If the identity of the party is no mystery to him, why did he establish a commission and the committee under the chairmanship of James Lawless to look into the identity of the party, they questioned.
However, it is the lack of certainty, the unknown, and the apparent disconnect that a number of Fianna Fáilers say the Martin has with party members, as well as policy issues like housing, which is causing the real crux of the divisions within the party.
“Not planning for the future and not letting us know, in a constructive dialogue, it doesn’t bode well. We’ll end up like the Tories, tearing each other apart,” said one member.