Taoiseach rotation shows 'political maturity' but Cabinet reshuffle presents issues

The first ever Taoiseach rotation is a sign of "political maturity" according to a politics professor, however he warned the Cabinet reshuffle will present issues for the coalition
Taoiseach rotation shows 'political maturity' but Cabinet reshuffle presents issues

James Cox

The first ever Taoiseach rotation is a sign of "political maturity" according to a politics professor, however he warned the Cabinet reshuffle will present issues for the coalition.

Leo Varadkar will start his second spell as Taoiseach on Saturday, with Micheál Martin stepping down as agreed in the Programme for Government.

DCU professor and political commentator Gary Murphy told BreakingNews.ie: "I don't know if it's a good thing or not [for Irish politics], I do think it's a sign of political maturity in the State. It certainly copper-fastens the Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael/Green Party coalition in the fact that there was always doubt about whether something like this could actually work... having a change of Taoiseach halfway through.

"It has worked relatively seamlessly, so whether it's a good thing or not it is a sign of political maturity, it's also a sign that the Civil War politics are finally over... with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in government."

Professor Murphy, whose biography of former Fianna Fáil Taoiseach Charlie Haughey was published last year, pointed out that Haughey flatly rejected the suggestion of a rotating Taoiseach when it was put to him by Fine Gael leader Alan Dukes in 1989.

"Going way back to when Charlie Haughey wanted Alan Dukes' support after the 1989 election, Dukes suggested a rotating Taoiseach and Haughey dismissed that as out of hand. But with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael essentially having the same number of TDs it would suggest this is the final act in a long period of political events over the course of the last century."

Martin's legacy

On the leadership of Mr Martin, Prof Murphy said his biggest legacy will be making the Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael/Green Party coalition work.

"I think the most significant legacy is that he made it work, the coalition government. Some people might look back and say 'what did this Government do?' I think the Government nowadays is all kind of technocratic... there's no great vision in Irish politics particularly.

"I think the fact he made it work will be the most significant legacy. He dealt okay with Covid, I know two years ago the meaningful Christmas idea went pear-shaped with the spike of numbers in January, that was a difficult time. Covid has made everything complex in Government.

"Government has spent money hand over fist, and yet their popularity rating is just OK, nothing extraordinary. Martin's personal popularity rating is good.

"I think the office of Taoiseach does for the most part tend to command respect, polling is good, we'll see if it's the same with Varadkar. I suppose Martin's most significant legacy will be that he made this Government work and that's not to be sniffed at."

Prof Murphy said Mr Varadkar will face a challenge in trying to increase Fine Gael's popularity while also performing well as Taoiseach.

He said the next general election will be crucial for Mr Varadkar after Fine Gael's "disastrous" 2020 election performance.

"I think there are two challenges. One is internally in Fine Gael, the party hasn't had any significant rise in popularity since Leo Varadkar became its leader in 2017. He's now five and a half years as leader, had one disastrous election notwithstanding the fact they ended up back in government, but anybody would have to say it was a terrible election for them in 2020. The next general election is a very big event for him, and a lot of it will also depend on how he does as Taoiseach."

He pointed to the fact Fianna Fáil are likely to retain the health and housing ministries in the Cabinet reshuffle as a challenge for Mr Varadkar.

"The reality of course is that housing is going to stay a Fianna Fáil ministry. I think how Varadkar deals with the fact that two most important issues in the Irish State, housing and health, are both held by Fianna Fáil ministers, and he's a Fine Gael Taoiseach, obviously. I think how that dynamic works will be interesting and a big challenge for him."

The Cabinet reshuffle is likely to be minimal, and Prof Murphy said this could lead to problems for both Mr Varadkar and Mr Martin, as ambitious TDs who had hoped for promotion may be unhappy.

The average person on the street couldn't give a hoot about a reshuffle at junior level and that's the risk.

"I think that certainly is a potential issue, particularly in Fianna Fáil where there has been more disquiet about the leadership than in Fine Gael, although I think that might change come the next election particularly if they don't do very well.

"It's one thing being in opposition, Leo Varadkar said he would relish being in opposition after the 2020 election, but obviously they ended up in government again due Covid and other circumstances.

"Those who are disaffected with Micheál Martin's leadership, it's not a hugely significant number now, but if the poll numbers remain static with them around 20 per cent, two per cent lower than the election, 20 per cent in a general election would mean Fianna Fáil come back with much the same seats or even lose a couple, they wouldn't be happy with that.

"For Leo Varadkar, there are some very talented people in Fine Gael who might think 'if I don't get promoted to Cabinet now, when will I get promoted to Cabinet?'

"I think there are dangers there. I see their point in saying this is all about stability and a long-term process, but there is a danger that significant swathes of the public will think the Government is satisfied with itself and in that context around housing, health, leaving the same people in without any substantial change might not go down well with the electorate.

"I think that's the risk with a minor reshuffle. It will largely be a reshuffle of certain junior ministers.

"A lot of people in Government will be thinking about this every day, but the average person on the street couldn't give a hoot about a reshuffle at junior level and that's the risk."

Sinn Féin

While Mr Martin is adamant he will lead Fianna Fáil into the next general election, questions over his leadership persist, and Prof Murphy said this could also lead to problems in the coalition.

He also said the timing of when the Government calls the next general election will be crucial, amid the ever-rising popularity of Sinn Féin.

"With the motion of no confidence in then-Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy going into the last election it was on a downbeat note for Fine Gael, so the timing of when Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party call the next election will be important.

"But if things were to spin out of control in Fianna Fáil, how would it go then? That's the question in a way.

"I don't really see any dramatic change over the course of the next two years because the alternative is Sinn Féin rock in on around 35 per cent in the polls, significantly ahead of where they were going into the 2020 election.

"The alternative of holding an early election could see Sinn Féin winning 50 to 60 seats and certainly nobody in Government wants that."

The coalition leaders will face issues after the Cabinet reshuffle, according to politics professor Gary Murphy.

With Mr Martin set to take on the foreign affairs portfolio, some have claimed it could give his rivals in the party a chance to undermine him when he is abroad.

While this is a possiblitly, Prof Murphy feels Mr Martin's position is safe at the moment.

"It's a tricky position because if you are Minister for Foreign Affairs it means a lot of travel, and being leader of the party means you need to have your finger on the pulse and do a lot of travelling around the State to constituencies and that kind of stuff. It's not the ideal position for a party leader, but of course it's happened before, Dick Spring in 1994 was a party leader and Minister for Foreign Affairs and kept the position for the whole of that government.

"I think Micheál Martin's position is solid enough, but he's 62 and Fianna Fáil will have to think about the future and whether they want him to lead them into the next election and what happens after that, but I can't imagine anyone in Fianna Fáil being happy if they get the same result as the last time, and that's the risk for them."

With Sinn Féin's rising popularity, a coalition with Fianna Fáil has been mooted after the next election. Prof Murphy said this is unlikely if Mr Martin remains in charge, while Fine Gael's stance on the issue is clear.

"Mary Lou McDonald recently said she'd talk to anybody... I don't think we'll see a Fine Gael/Sinn Féin coalition. Fine Gael have been power a long time and that would be a step too far, I'd rule that out.

"I don't think there could be a Fianna Fáil/Sinn Féin coalition with Micheál Martin as leader. That would be a step too far for him with his personal antipathy towards Sinn Féin and maybe even towards Mary Lou McDonald, so I'd rule that out."

He also said the potential for the current Government to be re-elected cannot be ruled out.

"The Government will want to be re-elected. It depends on again how the numbers fall. The grave situation for Fianna Fáil under a new leader is if they end up with 20 seats less than Sinn Féin, do they really want to be a junior partner in a Sinn Féin coalition? They might prefer to be in opposition.

"People say 'can this government really be re-elected?' I'd say of course it can, because Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will probably have more seats together than Sinn Féin on its own, so they will have the chance to form a coalition of some description."

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