Could the real Taoiseach please stand up

Shane Ross, Finian McGrath and John Halligan were having their picture taken on the Leinster House plinth last Wednesday afternoon when one mischievous Fianna Fáil TD shouted across from the car park: “Come back! All is forgiven!”

he three former Independent Alliance ministers had been for lunch and a catch-up across the road in Buswells Hotel. Mr Ross is putting the finishing touches to a book about his time in government that is likely to contain revelations that may make uncomfortable reading for Leo Varadkar and other Fine Gael ministers when it is published in October.

The Fianna Fáil TD was joking, of course, but there are plenty around Leinster House who have noted in recent weeks that the chaotic Coalition stands in sharp contrast to the unlikely stability of the Fine Gael-Independent minority government that lasted four years.

The summer break is supposed to afford the Coalition an opportunity to bed-in and ministers to read into their briefs but the growing number of Covid-19 cases is sparking alarm across Government about a second wave of the deadly virus.

The effective lockdown of Laois, Offaly and Kildare on Friday evening was just the start and more regional restrictions could follow. If the virus spirals out of control in the community then a return to nationwide lockdown cannot be ruled out.

“The only show in town now is to make sure this doesn’t get into the community,” said a senior minister. “If it gets into the community we’re in a very, very bad way.”

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Taoiseach Micheál Martin. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins

Taoiseach Micheál Martin. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins

This stark reality became apparent on Friday when Micheál Martin delivered his first – and almost certainly not his last – address to the nation. In many ways it was the first time the Irish public was introduced to the idea that there is a new man in charge. There were no Heaney quotes or Mean Girls references, no expressive hand gestures, just a staid but impactful speech, underlining the seriousness of the situation. “We must protect public health to the greatest extent possible,” Mr Martin said. “Everything else is secondary to that and if this requires difficult decisions then so be it.”

Mr Martin decided to address the country in this way because restrictions were being imposed again and there was an awareness in Government that press conferences do not have the same impact as this style of address.

It landed well and Mr Martin needed it, given he has found himself repeatedly overshadowed and even undermined by Tánaiste Leo Varadkar.

Mr Varadkar’s public pronouncements in recent weeks have undoubtedly left the impression among some people that he is still in charge – and if not that there are plenty who wish he still was. Just look at the polling data. By contrast, Mr Martin, as one senior Fine Gael source suggested last week, is like a “substitute teacher” filling in for a brief period before the real boss returns.

Mr Varadkar has done little to dispel this notion. The Fine Gael leader’s decision on Tuesday to stop and speak to reporters at Dublin Castle and effectively confirm that pubs would not reopen – before the Cabinet had even decided this – did not go down well with those close to the Taoiseach. “No one should make announcements before the Cabinet makes a decision on anything,” said a senior Fianna Fáil source.

Publicly Mr Martin dismissed Mr Varadkar’s latest intervention in a round of interviews on Friday, telling the Irish Independent he considered it an issue of “no great consequence”.

But many Fianna Fáil ministers are unhappy. “He [Mr Varadkar] knows what he’s doing and it’s not a coincidence so maybe it’s part of his long-term plan,” said one of them. “It’s a bigger issue in terms of the stability of the Government than two Greens not voting with us… he’s going to start pissing off other ministers when he makes announcements beforehand.”

A second Fianna Fáil minister said: “Nobody is happy with that to be quite honest with you… There is a trust that may have been broken by declaring everything before he goes in. The Taoiseach does trust the Tánaiste. There is no doubt about that. But the Tánaiste really needs to know his role.”

Mr Varadkar is arguably still trying to define his exact role in this unique arrangement. Never before has it been the case that the Tánaiste is a former Taoiseach who will take up that office again at a date – December 15, 2022 – set in stone in a formal document, the programme for government.

Even those around Mr Varadkar appear keen for the day when he returns to the office. One of his special advisers, Philip O’Callaghan, has written on his Twitter biography that he works for a man who was the Taoiseach and “will be again very soon”. A Government source said: “It’s like they’re deliberately goading Fianna Fáil. It won’t end well.”

The public, the media, and even his own party are still adjusting to Mr Varadkar’s effective demotion. “I called him Taoiseach the last day he rang,” said one Fine Gael TD this week.

The Tánaiste also has his own and his party’s priorities in Government to think about, he has repeatedly said he wants to focus on rebuilding Fine Gael after two bruising general elections where a combined 41 Dáil seats have been lost.

Communication has been a big failing of the new administration so far and this does not sit well with Mr Varadkar, who has always been seen as a strong communicator.

There were a number of telling moments during the press conference at Dublin Castle that followed the Cabinet meeting on Tuesday. When Mr Martin was struggling to answer a question from this correspondent about when exactly the decision to postpone Phase Four would be reviewed again he glanced towards Mr Varadkar, almost looking for a bailout. The Tánaiste said nothing, although later in the press conference he, unprompted, interjected to provide clarity about when restaurants and pubs serving food should now be closing.

Mr Martin had improved his messaging by the time Friday came and he had to announce tough new measures for nearly 400,000 people in the midlands. But Fine Gael TDs and ministers are privately critical of his first few weeks in office, believing the old criticism of him as indecisive has rung true.

“Micheál is just so indecisive. You saw that with the rowbacks on everything in the first couple of weeks,” said one Fine Gael TD. “Varadkar is the opposite. He tends to be decisive on issues that come up. He has presented himself as a contrast.”

Party colleagues of Mr Varadkar believe he would have held the line on removing the pandemic payment from people travelling abroad and the pay rise for super junior ministers – or at the very least not allowed both issues to escalate in the way they had.

There is also considerable anger among ministers of state over what they believe is a U-turn on plans to allow them to appoint special advisers or so-called SpAds.

The Government decided this week that ministers of state would not be allowed special advisers unless they make a specific case for having one to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.

This is the same situation that applied to the previous government. However many junior ministers were able to secure approval for SpAds in the Fine Gael-Independent minority government.

“It is classic Micheál Martin. He signed off on that with other leaders. The very first waft of wind that came against him he decided to capitulate,” a Fine Gael junior minister said. “They are not used to being in government… a lot of the issues around the last few weeks and why the Government started to look the way it has is that the inexperience on the Fianna Fáil side has started to show.”

Some believe they are being made to pay for the controversy over perks afforded to senior ministers in recent weeks. Their anger is directed not just at Mr Martin, but also Foreign Affairs and Defence Minister Simon Coveney whose retention of a State car was another public relations debacle for the coalition.

Indeed Mr Coveney sparked anger within Fine Gael when he told a meeting of the party’s ministers on July 28 that he did not think there should be special advisers for every junior member of the Government, according to three sources at the meeting in the Convention Centre.

Mr Coveney is said to have made reference to some junior ministers in the previous Fine Gael-led administration being more quiet or having a lighter workload.

“He said some ministers had light work loads and didn’t have one [an adviser] last time,” said one source. A second source said: “He definitely wasn’t in favour of them, which annoyed quite a few of us as you can imagine because it’s a bit rich for somebody who has retained trappings of office to be complaining about people having access to an adviser.” A third source said: “Ministers of State do feel they are picking up the flak for the mistakes made by Cabinet ministers and the comment was tone-deaf in that regard.”

The remarks are said to have prompted an angry reaction in particular from junior ministers Patrick O’Donovan and Damien English, neither of whom had special advisers in the last government. Mr English’s response was all the more surprising to some, given he is a close ally of Mr Coveney’s and ran his failed leadership bid three years ago. “Damien was just contesting it when the vote bell rang. Coveney didn’t appear back after the vote so I’d say he was lucky,” said an eyewitness.

Mr O’Donovan and Mr English did not respond to queries this weekend. A spokesman for Mr Coveney was unable to comment.

Rows over ministerial advisers are of no consequence to the public, but they do illustrate that the Government is still struggling to function properly in its early weeks.

Some members of the Cabinet were unhappy that a decision to lockdown three counties in the midlands was taken on Friday via a so-called incorporeal meeting over the phone rather than in person.

“It’s not good to be making decisions without proper discussion,” said one. A Cabinet source said: “Some ministers are deeply dissatisfied with the lack of engagement and discussion on the issue.”

But a senior government source argued it was not possible in the short timeframe given some ministers were in their constituencies and others had taken annual leave.

The Taoiseach has signalled he won’t be taking any holidays over the coming weeks, while the staycation plans of other ministers may have to be curtailed as the deadly virus threatens to dominate the Coalition’s agenda for the foreseeable future.


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