Is the Taoiseach trying to ‘silence’ Micheál Martin over his handling of Brexit before December?

An interesting couple of pieces in the Sindo at the weekend, regarding the confidence and supply arrangements between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and the growing tensions in their confidence and supply arrangement.

Before Christmas, average polling showed little difference between the two parties: both averaging around the 30% mark in November. There’s been slippage since for Fianna Fáil: the party most divided over the abortion referendum.

The terms of the arrangement are such that Fianna Fáil’s support for the government should last for three budgets (the last of which is due this Autumn), after which a review would take place by the end of the year.

The shift in volume and tone emanating from their press office suggests the party is preparing for a crunch point. Polling has been on a downward trend since the taoiseach’s triumphant announcement of a backstop arrangement.

The popularity of that announcement has contributed to Fianna Fáil’s difficulty in making any headway in what Owen Polly calls “a useful excuse for good old anti-Englishness” that followed in his Thunderer column in The Times.

In response to a large majority in the UK Parliament (which included the UK Labour Parliamentary Party) making his version of the backstop effectively illegal, the Taoiseach is being forced towards Fianna Fail’s more conciliatory position.

The timing for Martin’s interventions last week at MacGill and UCC – in which he insisted Ireland must push solutions that anticipate and try to ameliorate any future damage to the Irish state – was both fortuitous and not entirely accidental.

The implications of this apparent failure of last year’s backstop – when negotiation of the Irish question effectively ended – will become clear this December when Martin and Varadkar must review BOTH confidence and supply AND Brexit

It is impossible to imagine how the government’s handling of Brexit will not be a contributing if not a decisive factor in whether that review leads to an extension of that arrangement or an election early in the new year.

This might explain Mr Varadkar’s leaking of his own ‘private’ proposal to the FF leader that he should commit to giving FG another two years, now (thereby jugging FF the Brexit issue). This is Jody Corcoran’s jumping off point:

Martin’s criticism related to a meeting between them, and their closest two advisers, at the end of the Dail term for summer the week before last.

According to simultaneous media releases from Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, there were four items on the agenda: Brexit, the forthcoming budget, upcoming referendums and the confidence and supply arrangement.

Within 24 hours, either Varadkar, or somebody at his behest or within his confidence, leaked to the media a proposal made by the Taoiseach at the meeting – that Fianna Fail should extend the contentious confidence and supply deal by two years up to the summer of 2020.

And believe me, at the core of the grassroots in Fianna Fail there are now few things more contentious than the confidence and supply deal. [Emphasis added]

Quite. The impatience is palpable, but this burdensome deal has also been FF’s most direct means to progressively salvage its historic claim upon the Irish national interest from the debt-sodden ashes of its 2007-2011 administration.

In his Sindo column, Kevin Doyle contains a detailed assay of what Fianna Fáil has achieved through that confidence and supply arrangement, noting that Martin is having huge difficulty getting recognition for any of it.

He also confesses:

I have long believed this Government would fall around October but the increasingly precarious Brexit negotiations means Micheal Martin must again put the national interest first.

He is thinking about extending the deal until this time next year, in order to allow the country get past Brexit Day: March 29, 2019.

Brexit will be more difficult to resolve than Fianna Fail woes but whether either can be done in that time frame is questionable.

Indeed, and a failure to land the most favourable Brexit to Ireland may be the most visible fulcrum around which the next election revolves. As Corcoran observes:

There are those, and they are many – look at the opinion polls – who remain excited, even thrilled at Varadkar’s modus operandi.

But as I have said before, his high-risk strategies will backfire sooner or later. He has this tendency to fly far too closely to the sun.

There are those who argue that in such an approach to Brexit, Icarus cannot fail. He has the full support of the European Union, after all.

And it is Ireland and Europe against 70 or so hard-line Brexiteers and the DUP, goes the argument. No contest.

There is merit in the argument.

Yet as we approach D-day for a withdrawal agreement, there is also contemplation of what would be a disastrous no-deal Brexit.

A no-deal would be a damning indictment of all sides in these negotiations, but particularly the super-charged approach taken by Varadkar’s Government in its dealings with the UK.

That reality seems to have dropped slowly with the Government. Now, nine months to D-day, there is a tentative about-turn at senior Government level. [Emphasis added]

Let’s hope, for all our sakes, that it never comes to that. But remember, it took months to negotiate the last confidence and supply arrangement, and it may take months this time NOT to negotiate one.

It’s going to be an interesting year ahead, south of the border at least…

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Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty