Derek Mooney: A Week On And Getting Weaker

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From top: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announcing Denis Naughten’s resignation as Minister for Communications in the Dáil last week; Derek Mooney

This time last week things were not looking bad for the Taoiseach.

He was getting ready to see his Finance Minister deliver this government’s third budget. He could look forward to it keeping his TDs and support base fairly happy.

He knew it was not a great budget, some would say boring. He also knew that it was not what he would have delivered if he hadn’t to depend on those pesky Fianna Fáil-ers but, even so, he probably felt that he could look forward to good coverage in the media – and we all know how important a positive body-politic image is to the Fine Gael leader.

The Budget was just the start. There was a lot more for Leo to look forward to in what should have been a strong week for him and his party.

It was a week that should have taken the Taoiseach from passing Budget2019, through to increasing pressure on Fianna Fáil to deliver a Summer 2020 extension to Confidence and Supply and then to basking in the pleasure of seeing Mr Justice Peter Charleton’s tribunal of inquiry report clear his former Tánaiste of knowing of any attempt to discredit Sgt Maurice McCabe at the O’Higgins Commission.

That’s how the week should have gone, but it didn’t.

Welcome to politics and to the power of Harold Macmillan’s “events” (When asked what brings down a government, British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan is supposed to have replied, ‘Events, dear boy, events’, though the story is probably apocryphal).

So, fast forward to today and instead entering the Dáil as the true master of the House after a weekend of positive headlines telling of his political prowess, Varadkar will have to slink in and hope to dispel the notion that his government is weakening and in decline.

It’s a task not made any easier by having to both defend Fine Gael junior minister, Pat Breen, and then ask the Dáil to (re)appoint of independent TD, Seán Canny, as minister of state, to secure his vote for the coming weeks and months.

It cannot be how the Taoiseach thought he would be starting this political week.

Over the past two weeks Varadkar has lost the guaranteed backing of one Fine Gael TD, Peter Fitzpatrick and now two independent TDs, Clare’s Dr Michael Harty, who voted against the budget, and former Communications Minister Denis Naughten.

Hardly achievement for a government elected almost three years with an overwhelming minority.

Two weeks ago, in the wake of the Fitzpatrick defection, I asked, albeit rhetorically,

“If long(ish) serving members of the Leo Varadkar’s own parliamentary party are having public misgivings about this government’s future, then why would Varadkar seriously expect the main opposition party to rush to commit to extend its Confidence and Supply (C&S) agreement for another year, once the Budget speech is done?”

Two more TDs down and the question is even more relevant.

The Taoiseach has known from the moment he took the leadership of his party that he needed to be ready for what would happen once the third budget of Fine Gael’s three-budget deal with Fianna Fáil was passed.

Indeed, he needed to be more than just ready for it, he needed to be the one to shape and determine it. Most of his parliamentary colleagues presumed that he had worked all this out before he went for the leadership.

It is entirely possible, if not likely, that he had – but what he appears to have neglected is the reality that no battleplan survives the first engagement.

Having the ability to adapt and correct a plan mid-skirmish is a more important political skill than being able to dream one up in the first place. His handling of the relatively minor events of the second half of last week suggests, once again, that this is not a skill that the Taoiseach possesses.

Even before the mini-drama of Denis Naughten’s resignation and the news that Minister Pat Breen had similar questions to answer, Micheál Martin managed to throw Varadkar’s short term timeline off course.

He did this by taking the initiative and eschewing the passive role that Fine Gael assumed he would adopt.

But Martin did more than throw the timeline off, he did something else which Varadkar did not expect. Martin opted to discard the political leverage that the current situation gives him and offered Fine Gael a non-conditional arrangement up to early 2019.

This would enable the government to focus on Brexit between now and December/January. It would also allow the Dáil to pass the Finance and Social Welfare Bills that enact the Budget and progress the abortion legislation consequent on the referendum.

In one move Martin may have managed to put national interests ahead of party partisan interests and still get some kudos for himself and his party into the bargain.

I have been saying here for months that there is no good reason whatsoever to continue the Confidence and Supply arrangement. This government has run its course.

While both main parties can take some pride in fact that the arrangement has brought stability and delivered three budgets, as promised, the reality is that this weakening administration is still failing to address the twin crises in housing and health.

Whatever Ministers Murphy and Harris may think, or hope, the market is not going to sort out either – especially when that market may be faced with the calamity of a no-deal Brexit from the end of March 2019 onwards.

As bad as we know a hard deal Brexit would be, with customs and regulatory checks it would at least have the benefit of a legal and logistical framework. A no deal Brexit where the UK crashes out with no agreement and no transition period would devastating.

The last few bits of service that this government can do the country over the coming 3 – 4 months is to continue to defend Irish interests at the Brexit discussions, in the hope that there can be a withdrawal agreement with the backstop (or better) and a two-year (minimum) transition.

Once that is done, the government’s final act should be an orderly and calm progress to a February election.

Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010. His column appears here every Tuesday Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

16 thoughts on “Derek Mooney: A Week On And Getting Weaker

      1. Papi

        Given that there will probably be only two of them in existence at that stage, they’ll probably be worth, ooooh, 22 Euros?

  1. Joxer

    Derek – in your opinion and going on strengths of performance and polls who do you think will make up next Govt.

    will SF have a pivotal role?

  2. Alan McGee

    We’re told consistently by Fine Gael and Fianna Fail ‘no general election while BREXIT negotiations are happening’.
    There is several problems with this ruse.
    1. The negotiations are being handled on our behalf by European Chief Negotiator – Michel Barnier. So what input does any Irish representative have at the top table?
    2. The electorate did not give FG FF or indeed any government a mandate to ‘handle’ BREXIT. last election Feb 2016, BREXIT vote June 2016.
    3. FG & FF are assuming the mandate (they were not given) to deliver the best possible BREXIT for Ireland. If we do get that – well done them. If we don’t it is squarely Fine Gael & Fianna Fail’ fault.
    Quite the gamble.

    1. Cian

      Alan, we don’t live in democracy. We live in a representative democracy.

      In 2016 we gave the 158 TDs a mandate to run the country for up to 5 years (or less if they couldn’t come to a majority agreement). That mandate includes handling any/all issue that arise. There is no requirement for them to come back to us for a specific mandate for Brexit, or indeed anything else.

        1. Cian

          oh, and don’t your points #1 (negotiations are done by the EU) and #3 (FG & FF take full responsibility for getting best Brexit) contradict each other?

          1. Alan McGee

            Well, yes they do but that contradiction is being peddled by FG & FF.
            I’m saying this ‘no general election while BREXIT negotiations are happening’ garbage from FG & FF is a ruse and there are several problems with it.
            1. The negotiations are being handled on our behalf by European Chief Negotiator – Michel Barnier. So what input does any Irish representative have at the top table?
            3. FG & FF are assuming the mandate (they were not given) to deliver the best possible BREXIT for Ireland.

            The contradiction you’re pointing out is the very ruse being made.
            Europe is handling the negotiations for Ireland (that is fact) yet FG & FF are leading us to believe they have some hand act or part in those negotiations (that is risible). So this tripe of ‘no general election while BREXIT negotiations are happening’ is just that, tripe.

          2. Cian

            Fair enough. But what you are saying could be boiled down to your initial point above. Or as you now say:
            “Europe is handling the negotiations for Ireland (that is fact) yet FG & FF are leading us to believe they have some hand act or part in those negotiations (that is risible). So this tripe of ‘no general election while BREXIT negotiations are happening’ is just that, tripe.”

  3. Cian

    I have been saying here for months that there is no good reason whatsoever to continue the Confidence and Supply arrangement. This government has run its course.

    There is one, and only one, reason. FF are stuck at 25% in the polls.

  4. CoderNerd

    ‘…basking in the pleasure of seeing Mr Justice Peter Charleton’s tribunal of inquiry report clear his former Tánaiste of knowing of any attempt to discredit Sgt Maurice McCabe at the O’Higgins Commission.’

    Incorrect:
    ‘The tribunal finds that “it is probable that the minister read this email at some stage on the Friday, using her mobile device. It was some days later, on 25 May 2015, that the matter came back noted as having been read by her. Her decision was not to interfere”.’

  5. Sheik Yahbouti

    The future two budgets are the real killer for us poors. All you yuppies (wot a laff) need not concern yourselves.

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