You do really have to wonder if the Taoiseach and Tánaiste understand politics at all?
Their immediate and absolute refusal to accede to calls for a mid-point review of the Programme for Government, coming from senior representatives in their two parties, is an example of this.
What is so wrong with agreeing to a mid-point review, a political stock-take, of the programme so painstaking negotiated back in June 2020?
Why shouldn’t the moment at which the two leaders switch roles also involve an appraisal of how effective this government has been at implementing the lengthy programme announced just over two years ago?
I can understand neither side wishing to have a complete and total renegotiation of the programme, but surely it is political common sense to examine what areas are ahead of target and which ones are behind and in need of additional attention… it is not as if things have not changed dramatically since the deal was negotiated?
But despite all this, on Saturday spokespeople for both the Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar issued virtually identical statements to Hugh O’Connell of the Sunday Independent, saying:
“The Programme For Government was negotiated for the lifetime of the Government. The members voted four to one for it in 2020 and no review is planned.”
The Taoiseach made the same point about Fianna Fáil members voting 80% yes to the deal in interviews at Deans Grange cemetery yesterday following his oration at the graveside of Sean Lemass.
Though, in the interests of accuracy it is only fair to remind him that it was actually Fine Gael who voted 80% in favour. As was reported widely at the time, his party members voted 74% in favour. I know it can be easy to confuse things that are so close together that they are virtually intertwined, but as one of the dissenting 26% in Fianna Fáil I am not as phlegmatic as the Taoiseach when it comes to mislaying the odd 6% here, or in the opinion polls.
Indeed, governments in which Micheal Martin served, were far from worried about Programme for Government reviews. From 1997 onwards the Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrat governments produced and published an annual review of the implementation of the Programme for Government, department by department.
These appeared around the 12-month anniversary of the formation of the government and included introductions by both the Taoiseach and Tánaiste which reviewed progress, trumpeted real achievements, and signalled where progressed remained to be made.
The annual reviews benefited everyone. They were handy scorecards on where the government was in fulfilling its mandate, they were an incentive to some ministers to pick up the pace, and a useful mechanism for driving some policies through departments where officials were perhaps less than enthusiastic about them.
There were also an important exercise in openness and transparency, as they were not just published quietly on the web but were launched formally each year by the leaders of government. This Irish Times article on the 2004 PfG review is a good example.
So what have the Taoiseach and Tánaiste got to fear? Far from opposing a mid-point review, the Taoiseach should be embracing the calls from the likes of Willie O’Dea, James O’Connor, Jackie Cahill, and others and not just agreeing to a mid-point review, but go further and commit annual reviews, each June.
Yes, the first review may show slippages on very specifically timed commitments made in June 2020 (The election of a Limerick Mayor being an obvious one), but better to get the pain over now and recommit to fresh and achievable timelines, especially as Covid-19 did make some of the timelines promised in 2020 were never realistic. It would also mean acknowledging that closing down the building sector during Covid-19 was a grievous error, though this is something Taoiseach has partly conceded in interviews.
Instead, Martin risks repeating the politically fatal mistake he made back in December 2018 when he made a solo run on his party’s Confidence and Supply agreement with Fine Gael and offered Varadkar a blank cheque renewal for a further year with no review or other consideration. I said this was a mistake at the time and I was not alone. The voters gave their verdict too in February 2020 and it was not a glowing one.
I hope Martin now realises the massive error of judgement he made in prolonging the life of the worst government in my living memory. Though he now enjoys the trappings of office as Taoiseach, it is in a construct that limits and constricts him. A construct that is the consequence of his own poor political judgement.
No matter what he does now, the reality is that after December 14th Micheál Martin will never be Taoiseach again. But even more worryingly, he will see and feel his political power and influence ebb away as the clock ticks away his remaining time in office.
The only people over whom he holds any sway are the small number of TDs hoping for promotion and preferment in any reshuffle. But even power is diminishing. Some of those TDs who were passed over in 2020, now believe that becoming a junior minister in December 2022 and getting to serve a year or so in office might reduce their chances of re-election.
When he took the Fianna Fáil leadership in 2011 (and new party leaders take the leadership, it is not passed along to them) Micheál Martin wanted his legacy to be that of the leader who turned the party’s fortunes around and took it from the edge of the abyss, back to the centre of politics.
He achieved that in 2016, but in late 2018 he mis-stepped and squandered it.
Today, his legacy will say that he took the party back from the edge of the abyss in 2011 only to led it back again in 2022. A dreadful legacy, especially if it includes the tagline… the last Fianna Fáil Taoiseach.
Martin can do little to change the first part. He can still do something about the second part. The choice remains his… for now.