Another year over, a new one just begun... Gavan Reilly on the political year ahead

Nobody can pretend that 2021 went the way they would have expected - we hoped the cloud of Covid would be long off the horizon by now - but pandemic aside, there’s plenty of intrigue in the political year ahead.

Let’s start with the big one. We can’t rule out a general election in 2022. Why? Because come the 15th December, the government faces its biggest test of Dáil confidence: the ability to get Leo Varadkar appointed as Taoiseach.

If everything goes to plan, the vote should be fairly routine and Varadkar will ascend to the top office again on that date. But everything may not go to plan. There were already some Fianna Fáil TDs who were uneasy about their loveless marriage with Fine Gael, but who could swallow their pride to ensure that one of their own got.the top job. When the shoe is on the other foot, and they have to vote to install a FG TD as their boss next December, will the same goodwill still apply?

You can’t be so sure. I remember a conversation with Éamon Ó Cuív just before the government was formed in June 2020, where he told me – despite opposing the proposed coalition – that he would still be prepared to vote in favour of appointing Micheál Martin (above) as Taoiseach. So I then asked him: “And what about when it rotates? Will you vote for the appointment of a Fine Gael Taoiseach, when the time comes?“ His eventual reply was: “Sure, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.“

With Marc MacSharry now officially out of the fold, there are not many TDs who will publicly announce their reservations this far in advance. But if the Soldiers of Destiny are in a downbeat mood when it comes to handing over the top job, and if they feel the public is passing them by, they may not jump at the chance to hand over the top office. For them, an election might be a more appetising prospect.

What lies ahead? Leo Varadkar, Eamon Martin and Micheal Martin

Jobs for the boys… but which ones?

One other area on which there are mixed messages is if there’ll be a cabinet reshuffle. In an end-of-year sitdown with political journalists, Micheál Martin seemed very comfortable with the performance of his five underlings and suggested they should be left where they are - meaning Norma Foley staying in Education, Stephen Donnelly in Health, and so on. Leo Varadkar has been far more circumspect – basically warning his own ministers to up their work rate, or risk being demoted – and has left the door open to re-distributing departments between the three coalition parties.

The Programme for Government was very prescriptive about how the three-party government was supposed to function, so it is curious - and maybe revealing - that it doesn’t mention whether the parties will swap jobs at the halfway point. You’d have thought that, if he wants to stay on as FF leader, Micheál Martin would want to know what brief he gets when he becomes Tánaiste. Might it be the Department of Further Education, which was his own brainchild, for which he banged the drum for years in opposition, only to see it handed to Simon Harris? And would Leo Varadkar be prepared to find another new home for a possible successor? All of those things remain unclear.

It’s not easy being Green

Remember, too, that the Greens’ deputy leader Catherine Martin has previously proposed that the Programme for Government be renegotiated at the halfway point. Her suggestion was completely dismissed by the other parties in June 2002, when they agreed to share power, but since then Marin has come close to toppling Eamon Ryan (below) as leader entirely, and the pandemic has taken the wind out of the party’s sails by distracting from the climate crisis. Might she be so emboldened as to push for a renewal once more? Might the Greens ask to be given some other cabinet positions? And how would the average Big Two minister feel about that?

The tectonic plate within the Green Party will be worth keeping an eye on this year. This year there’ll be a by-election to fill Ivana Bacik’s Seanad seat, which is being eyed up by former Dublin mayor Hazel Chu, who may tick some of the same boxes for the Trinity electorate. But Chu is no ally of Eamon Ryan and would be much closer to Martin’s brand of more assertive idealism. A win for Chu might on the face of it seem like good news for the Green Party, therefore, but it might only stir the tensions inside.

Will FG be left feeling blue?

And what about Fine Gael? It’s not even five years since Leo Varadkar was chosen as party leader, ostensibly because he was deemed to have an electoral stardust that nobody else could match. Since then he has had a disappointing local election, a disappointing general election, and is zero-for-five in by-election campaigns. There has been no evidence of any electoral bounce under his leadership.

More worrying for Fine Gael is the inexorable (though not irreversible) decline in their support since mid-2020. Most sitting governments enjoyed a pole dance in the middle of the pandemic’s first wave – the “rally to the flag” effect is a universal one – that goodwill has now drained away. Polls now are less likely to show Fianna Fáil in a distant third place, but rather FF and FG circling at the same territory while Sinn Féin pulls away into the distance.

The stakes for Varadkar (left) are becoming very high: the party is not short of ambitious members who will happily raise their hands if a leadership vacuum emerges. If an election does come, and FG can’t secure a fourth term, there’ll be a generational shift: it’s really not tenable that the opposition vanguard be led by the same people who had lost an election. What does that mean for Varadkar and Simon Coveney, in cabinet for 11 years already? What would it mean for Paschal Donohoe and Heather Humphreys, sitting there for seven? What might it mean for the likes of Simon Harris and Helen McEntee, left to lead the next generation?

And all of this is without entertaining how unpopular a government might be if further difficult decisions are needed to curb our livelihoods and social lives in the weeks ahead. Schools are safe, remember - but only as safe as the communities they’re in. Micheál Martin has made a sacred cow of schools; a change of tack now could be hugely damaging.

Lots to look forward to…

- Gavan Reilly is Political Correspondent for Virgin Media News and Political Chronicle for the Meath Chronicle