Derek Mooney: The Endgame Is Near

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From top, left to right: Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Leo Varadkar , Minister for the Environment, Climate, Communications and Transport, Eamon Ryan and Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Darragh O’Brien at the launch of ‘Housing for All’; Derek Mooney

At the end of July I said that come September I would be back and ready to offer my thoughts on what’s happening on the Irish political scene.

Well, I am back, but little did I imagine we would see so much political activity in August. Like many I assumed that politicians from all sides who have – to be fair – endured a difficult 16 months, would leap at the chance of a having a calm and uneventful August.

I was wrong. I failed to the factor-in the capacity of Fine Gael’s officer class to completely overestimate their own guile and ability and to fatally underestimate the public’s impatience with the appearance of ministerial entitlement.

Though the Taoiseach and his allies, more of whom are in Fine Gael these days than in Fianna Fáil, may want to portray #Merriongate/#Zapponegate as a silly season story that is not resonating with the public, his TDs know that’s not the case.

Voters may not be across the minutiae of who said what, to whom, in what text and over what platform… but who is? The stories and sequences coming from the Tánaiste and the Foreign Affairs minister seem to change every couple of days.

But voters are seeing this episode as characteristic of a government that seems remote, detached and more focused on its own issues than theirs.

Martin’s protestations at last Thursday’s Housing for All launch that the whole affair was unimportant, and that the media was treating it as a melodrama, would be less unconvincing if he hadn’t been one of the first to make this an issue by saying he had been “blindsided” by Fine Gael at Cabinet.

Like it or not, that attempt by Martin to explain how and why he, as Taoiseach, hadn’t the political sense to send the appointment back for reconsideration, or consultation with an Oireachtas committee, helped launch this long running saga.

By the way, do a Google search for “Martin and “blindsided” and you will see how often this Taoiseach finds himself the victim of others blindsiding him, be it on vaccines by the EU, by the EU on the Northern Ireland Protocol or by NPHET.

Last January I said here that normal politics wouldn’t resume in this country  until what are known as the wet bars, i.e. pubs that do not regularly serve food, were fully reopened.

As I also explained last March how this was not because politics is so linked to drink that you can’t have one without the other, but rather that pub re-opening was expected to be one of the last pandemic restrictions to be lifted and was likely to coincide with large groups – such as Oireachtas parliamentary party groups – being able to again meet face-to-face.

Next week we see that happen when the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party has its first significant non-virtual meeting in over a year. A meeting that should have taken place last week.

While TDs and Senators have had regular Zoom /online meetings over the lockdowns, these have tended to be quite one-sided with the Taoiseach and Ministers more in broadcast than listening mode.

The other major issue with these virtual encounters has been the fact that so much of what was said, and a fair smattering of what was never said, ended up on social media, that many back benchers opted to self-censure, or even to avoid contributing altogether.

The return of face-to-face single room meetings will not only facilitate open and frank discussion of the frustration many within the parliamentary party feel with both government performance and the party’s own poll ratings, it will also allow less opportunity for the proceedings to be relayed outside.

The issues are many. From the unwarranted delay in publishing the Fleming report into the disastrous 2020 election; to the party’s dismal performance in the Dublin Bay South by-election; to its languishing in the mid-teens in the polls; to the prevailing belief that Fine Gael is continually wiping Fianna Fáil’s eye at the cabinet table and that Martin applies double standard on ministerial responsibility to the detriment of his own party colleagues.

#Zapponegate speaks directly and substantially to this latter point, though not as dramatically as the finding in a Mail on Sunday/Ireland Thinks poll published on August 22nd that only 25% of voters think the Taoiseach, Micheál Martin has the most influence on the direction of government policy. A massive 54% said that Leo Varadkar had most influence – note that they did not say they welcomed this.

Martin repeatedly telling colleagues that 75% of his party membership backed the deal with Fine Gael and the Greens is cutting no ice with his parliamentary colleagues. Well over 90% of them backed that deal. They did more than just back it, they used up a great of local goodwill to persuade very uncertain supporters to do likewise.

What they need to know now is where is the clear Fianna Fáil stamp on this government’s policies and actions.  They were expecting to see some of that last Thursday with the Housing For All plan, but what they saw was a Fianna Fáil Taoiseach who thought it was vital to bring a speech justifying the sacking of a party colleague to a landmark Fianna Fáil policy announcement.

Not only did they see and their own leader needlessly rising to the media bait, sabotaging the news coverage of the plan he was there to promote, they then had to listen to him justify his actions saying, “I didn’t show up here with a speech, I came here well-resourced with material…”. A distinction without a difference.

And to add salt to the wound they had to endure the Tánaiste follow up on all of this by shamelessly rewriting history and denying that there were housing shortfalls under Fine Gael. Shortfalls that turned a housing crisis into a housing emergency.

I have said here many times that there is one issue that matters more than any other in politics right now and that is housing. In May I warned that:

The dilemma for Fianna Fáil is that it does not have a distinct and uniquely Fianna Fáil housing policy… Any new one it tries to launch now is tainted on arrival if it is seen to have Fine Gael’s agreement. 

To Darragh O’Brien’s considerable political credit, he and his small team of political advisers have succeeded in delivering a housing program that is funded, well researched, thorough, and grounded in reality.

He was an effective advocate for his program on TV and Radio on the night of the launch, demonstrating a strong grasp of detail and an ability to deal with #Zapponegate questions without throwing party colleagues under buses.

But does the plan contain enough to convince voters that Fianna Fáil both grasps the scale of the housing problem and has sufficiently ambitious plans to address that problem at scale? I doubt it.

There is much that is good in the Housing For All series of documents, but my big fear is that the target of addressing the crisis over 9-10 years, combined with a housing output (new builds) delivery timeline (2022 – 2030) that backloads the delivery (24,600 new homes in 2022, compared to 40,500 homes in 2030) does not convey a sense of Fianna Fáil fully grasping the scale.

Any glitches or hiccups in years one or two and housing will be as big a political issue at the last election as it was at the last one – and that can only spell disaster for Fianna Fáil. Indeed, it is arguable that even without any last-minute problems, that the year one and year two targets are so low as to mean that housing could be an issue anyway.

Be in no doubt. Martin and Varadkar’s individual futures as leaders of their parties hang in the balance now that normal politics is resuming. The news that their respective parliamentary parties can meet again is bad news for both men, and while neither seems to be handling it well, it looks like Martin has the most to fear, right now.

I am convinced that more Fianna Fáil TDs want Martin gone than want him to stay. The number still sitting on the fence has dropped dramatically since before the Summer and I doubt there is anything Martin can say to over the next days and weeks to convince them to save his skin.

We are in the endgame.

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 Monday. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

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9 thoughts on “Derek Mooney: The Endgame Is Near

  1. GiggidyGoo

    “To Darragh O’Brien’s considerable political credit, he and his small team of political advisers have succeeded in delivering a housing program that is funded, well researched, thorough, and grounded in reality.
    He was an effective advocate for his program on TV and Radio on the night of the launch, demonstrating a strong grasp of detail and an ability to deal with #Zapponegate questions without throwing party colleagues under buses.”
    Would have to disagree there Derek. His grasp of detail even worries himself, which is why he won’t face Eoin O’Broin in a one-to-one debate.

    Reply
    1. seanydelight

      Feel like the whole article was to convey that singular message.

      Saying I knew Martin was lacking support months ago, and housing is important, isn’t exactly a revelation.

      Reply
    2. Johnny

      He’s playing a blinder,I hope based on his mvp status, he’s get a bigger portfolio and job,than fffs building a few houses,jaysus any paddy can do that,we built ‘merica….ghost estate are coming back,yeah keep saving your deposit,sadly it’s outstripping wage growth and inflation at mo,but hang in there as your wages are simply going have increase or……..what’s 12.5 % increases annually to the minister besides unsubstantial…..a buying opportunity according Darrah,come on down…..

      In time his execution(guarantee) of long term upwards only leases on irish homes to yank predators,on behalf future generations will prove unconstitutional,I believe he’s a rouge minister acting outside his powers, in insisting these contracts/lease are binding and private,they will be found null and void and unenforceable,how many bids oh one only,for how much….oh that’s a state secret,really is it…

      Reply
  2. V aka Frilly Keane

    Since I critisied the Indo for doing the same thing last week
    When they presented Ivan Yates’ new PR buisness, with pricelist n’ all, as an article

    I’m obliged to say the same here Broadsheet
    Stick an advertorial warning on the top of this one
    whatever about politicking for a few of his Dublin FF butties
    Derek is doing a bit more than that this time
    He’s blogging up a Government Policy / Programme
    without one single mention of the numerous issues
    particularly the ‘Special Interests’ contributions

    Pretty gaudy tbh

    Reply
  3. Zaccone

    ” to mean that housing could be an issue anyway.”

    Given we need 30,000 housing units completed a year just to meet current demand, and significantly more than that to clear the backlog (ie fix the housing crisis), its very clear the housing crisis will be if anything even worse by 2023. Even if everything goes perfectly to plan in the new housing plan.

    If the government survives to 2025 the crisis will have at best stabilized/stopped worsening, but thats about it. We’ll also have even more people in their late 30s and 40s still renting by then. People very angry at FF and FG.

    Its going to be the #1 issue in the next election. FF need much quicker, more radical measures to save themselves. Big vacant property taxes with no loopholes, hikes in property tax on non-PPRs, incentives for old people to downsize, huge tax hikes on cuckoo funds. Theres a lot they could do, if the political will was there.

    Reply

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