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Leadership at issue as Fianna Fáil eyes prospects after pandemic

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Those who have been close to Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin say he never expected to be taoiseach, given the state of the party when he became leader in January 2011. That changed, however, after the 2016 general election.

Then, Fianna Fáil more than doubled its number of Dáil seats from 20 to 44 and by the following July support among likely voters had jumped even further by a very healthy nine points to 33 per cent.

Five years later, though, the party is struggling in the polls ahead of a crucial 10-week period for the party, the Government and the State, with much riding on the success of the Covid-19 vaccine rollout.

For this reason, some in Fianna Fáil are reluctant now to speak about the party’s future, saying that the public would not appreciate navel gazing when when the focus should be on the pandemic.

The leadership issue is on the back burner for now, they say. Except it is not. On the contrary, it is very much afoot. The jostling for position and allegiances is “relentless”, says one seasoned TD.

The numbers are apparently nearly there for a challenge. But more of that later.

The first question is: where did it all go wrong for a party that just five years ago made a stunning rise from the ashes of political ruin? And one that had then hoped for even more. And what next?

New politics

When Fianna Fáil struck the confidence-and-supply deal with Fine Gael in 2016, it was with the blessing of the parliamentary party, which did not believe a grand coalition was viable but liked the idea of pulling strings from the outside.

Two things happened in late 2017 and early 2018 that are at the root of today’s rumblings. Firstly, Leo Varadkar’s tough stance against London during Brexit negotiations, which saw Fine Gael take an 11-point lead over Fianna Fáil in December 2017.

Martin would then shock his TDs in January 2018 with an unexpected Dáil speech saying he would vote in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment and to allow abortion on request until near the end of the first trimester.

Some said it was brave, others said it was a betrayal. Later, a photograph taken in Merrion Square emerged of more than half of the parliamentary party holding placards urging the public to vote No.

Martin, not for the first time, was out of step with his colleagues, but he was very much in step with the public mood, given the landslide vote in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment that summer.

The photo of anti-abortion Fianna Fáil TDs seriously impacted on Fianna Fáil’s ability to attract younger voters over the last three years. If Martin had not done what he did, the party would have “dragged him the other way” and “things would be even worse than they are now”, says one strategist.

But the troops were becoming increasingly restive.

Confidence and supply

Many of those interviewed argue that things took a turn for the worse when Martin extended the confidence-and-supply deal with Fine Gael. “There is no scenario in which there is another two years in this,” a person familiar with his thinking told The Irish Times in 2017.

Yet in the face of a potentially ruinous no-deal Brexit, that is exactly what happened the following year when Martin made the decision that it was not the time to pull the plug. It was the right thing for the country, but the wrong thing for Fianna Fáil, an insider says.

“We stayed in confidence and supply too long. Micheál made all of these big decisions as leader of the Opposition and he did not consult with anyone about the extension. He just walked into the Dáil and announced it one day. It was bizarre,” one TD said this week.

On Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly, one Fianna Fáil TD said: “The public do not like Stephen. They’ve given up on him.” Photograph: Sam Boal/Photocall
On Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly, one Fianna Fáil TD said: “The public do not like Stephen. They’ve given up on him.” Photograph: Sam Boal/Photocall

It led to huge internal animosity, even if it was not unpopular with the public that did not want to see an election held in such circumstances. The underlying significance of this move would become apparent the following year.

There is a view that the move to keep the party in government left it unable to match an increasingly energetic Sinn Féin in Opposition and also left them intrinsically tied to Fine Gael in the mind of the voter.

Local and European elections

However, the May 2019 local elections brought better news. Fianna Fáil retained its top spot locally, winning 279 seats – a gain of 12 on 2011. There were grumblings about the European election results, however, after a two-candidate strategy in the Midlands North West constituency bombed.

When party insiders are asked to name positive moments they talk about that summer: “One of the big pieces of infrastructure that Fianna Fáil still has, a massive electoral asset, are their councillors.

“They are own-brand merchants who would be popular for who they are, as opposed to their party. The question is whether that level of political representation can withstand the deterioration at TD level,” says one person closely connected to events.

The big issue on the doorstep during the election was housing. The party did not pay enough heed, says a councillor. “Sinn Féin did not have a good day in the locals. They went off the grid. We should have noticed it. They did a postmortem and took action. We did not,” according to a prominent party member.

This idea is rejected by those loyal to Martin: “There is rarely a postmortem after a good election,” says one, not unreasonably.

Eoghan Murphy effect

By the autumn of 2019, the housing crisis had significantly worsened. Homeless numbers breached the 10,000 mark. The average rent in Dublin had risen 100 per cent since 2010.

In December, Fine Gael’s minister for housing, Eoghan Murphy, survived a motion of no confidence by 56 votes to 53. Fianna Fáil abstained. In the Dáil, Darragh O’Brien, who has taken over from Murphy as Minister for Housing, accused the Government of “trying to spread the blame” to other parties. By then it was too late, three Fianna Fáil TDs told The Irish Times.

In the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party there is growing concern about Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien. Photograph: Alan Betson
In the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party there is growing concern about Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien. Photograph: Alan Betson

The abstention on the confidence motion ensured blame was on both parties. “We were seen as being far too close to Fine Gael. We effectively supported Eoghan Murphy. The public really turned on us that December,” said one.

Another remembers the abuse taken during Christmas doorstep visits. A bright spot was the party’s dual success in November byelection with Malcolm Byrne taking a seat in Wexford and Pádraig O’Sullivan doing so in Cork North Central.

Yet some TDs were still looking over their shoulder at Sinn Féin’s finely-honed campaign in Dublin Mid-West where Mark Ward upset the pre-election predictions, taking a second seat, largely helped by its existing TD, Eoin O’Broin.

“That [byelection] was a bonus but I remember watching the Eoin Ó Broin result and thinking, there is something to that,” says one TD.

General election

While the pre-election debacle over plans for a commemoration of the Royal Irish Constabulary was a mess caused by Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil lost as much if not more favour with the public as Sinn Féin put the boot in.

Some believe the party was “too ambiguous” in the early stages of the controversy when Fine Gael was still in a flap, and it allowed Sinn Féin to capitalise on sizeable public anger.

In a spat between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin, it is Fianna Fáil which loses, which is a pattern that has been replicated since. “It damaged us hugely,” said a TD.

Speaking about the following general election, party members do not hold back: “We had a really bad campaign. There was complete overconfidence in the leadership that all we had to do was turn up and we would be the larger party.

“We had the same manifesto as the previous election, An Ireland For All. We didn’t even bother thinking about change. And nothing changed. We ran a boring campaign. There were no standout policies.

“Micheál Martin took too much on himself. It was presumed he would do great in the debates, but he did not. That was Mary Lou, ” says one Fianna Fáil TD, who is not unrepresentative of the opinions of other colleagues.

An early decision to exclude Mary Lou McDonald from a Prime Time leaders’ debate made matters worse. “We started getting it on the doors, why have Sinn Féin been excluded,” another TD said. “It was Mary Lou this, Mary Lou that.

“Sinn Féin was masterful in how they built on that debate. It was the establishment excluding them, but more importantly it was the establishment excluding a woman, with this image of these two men on the inside. Their social media game was top class too.”

Then the pensions row exploded. Sinn Féin pledged to keep the pensions age at 65. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil proposed transition payments. “We were all over the place on pensions, and we were aligned with Fine Gael.

“This opened Sinn Féin up to people in their mid-50s onwards who would never have voted for them. It appealed to their pockets. It grew from there,” another TD said.

Current and former members argue that Fianna Fáil should have been more open to talking to Sinn Féin. The decision to keep the door so firmly jammed left the party hemmed in, they insist. However, this is challenged by the fact that an exit election poll showed that 60 per cent of Fianna Fáil voters believed that Martin had been right to rule out a deal with Sinn Féin.

Summer of discontent

Covid-19 changed everything. A caretaker Fine Gael government steered the ship as the virus began to tear through the country. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil ditched the Civil War rivalries and entered coalition with the Greens.

Three-quarters of Fianna Fáil’s 11,000 members backed the deal. The rotating Taoiseach arrangement was agreed with Martin taking the first spin. The acrimony over his choice of Ministers has been well documented but those choices have ramifications to this day.

“In terms of polling, Fine Gael are not being affected in the same way as Fianna Fáil. The choice of ministerships was not well designed. We took on health and housing and education and now we are in the eye of every storm. I think Micheál made his choice based on who he wanted around him. He wants to micromanage everything,” said a senior politician who believes Martin made his choices based on “who he can control”.

Dublin Bay South TD Jim O’Callaghan is seen as a likely contender in a Fianna Fáil leadership contest. Photograph: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie
Dublin Bay South TD Jim O’Callaghan is seen as a likely contender in a Fianna Fáil leadership contest. Photograph: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

However, those who work closely with Martin and know his thinking reject that, saying that he made his choices based on ability, gender and, to a certain extent, geography.

Among the parliamentary party, there is growing concern about Stephen Donnelly, the Minister for Health, and Darragh O’Brien, the Minister for Housing.

On Donnelly, one TD says: “The public do not like Stephen. They’ve given up on him. I lost faith in him after Christmas. He is dismissive of our concerns. His office is a disaster in terms of coming back. That is a TD’s bread and butter.”

Those close to Donnelly paint a picture of a Minister with so much on his plate that one day someone will look back and ask why no one shouted stop. He does not go on social media, they say, because of the level of vitriol. He had to erect a fence outside his house for his family’s safety.

On O’Brien, the party knows how important it is that it makes inroads with housing. But there are serious misgivings about his shared-equity scheme. Even his own colleagues believe it will push up prices and it is causing anxiety.

Vaccine gamble

Amid all this handwringing is the obvious question: what next for Micheál Martin? Where stands his leadership? While some did not want to entertain questions about it, many had no such qualms.

Some even have mental tallies of who is supporting who.

Scarred by the decision to allow a “meaningful Christmas”, and acutely aware of serious public anger about the length of lockdowns, the Fianna Fáil faithful believe the coming 10 weeks will be crucial for Martin. He has “invested an enormous amount of political capital in this vaccine being delivered,” says one long-time TD. “If that goes well in July, great. If it does not, then there will be a problem.”

Another said there is a sense that while a leadership contest will not be called immediately, or even soon, the situation is volatile because of the promises made on vaccines.

They say there is currently “60:40” support for the Taoiseach among his party but this could swing very quickly. Others have it at 50:50 with five or six floating votes but it tends to be the agitators who say this.

Out in front is Dublin Bay South TD Jim O’Callaghan. Those close to him say he is not canvassing or cajoling or making any moves. His supporters say they are having to constantly approach him, egging him on to take his chances seriously. But there is no doubt he is seriously considering it.

“When the time is right, he will go for it, 100 per cent,” a supporter said. “We need a Dublin leader.”

There are plenty, though, who are not enamoured with the idea of O’Callaghan as leader. “It seems to be almost a side hustle to him,” said one party member. Another said: “There is risk for some people being out in the race too early. This is not a sprint.”

When one senior member of the party was asked if there is jostling and phone calls flying about contenders generally, he laughed and said: “Oh God, there is! It is relentless. They’re at it the whole time.” Other names in contention include Michael McGrath, Darragh O’Brien, Barry Cowen and perhaps Dara Calleary.

McGrath, steady in his handling of his new ministry in public expenditure, and O’Brien, a Dublin TD, are seen as the front-runners in this group.

Nothing happens, though, until a motion of confidence is lodged and a majority of the party decides it should proceed. “Once a challenge is presented, Micheál is gone. It will win.” Such a statement sounds unsentimental, but that’s politics.

Post-pandemic world

Unthinkable as it sounds, there is another world post-pandemic. One of the key questions for the party is how it approaches the thorny question of Irish unity. Some of the Taoiseach’s internal critics dismiss his Shared Island initiative.

“Everyone is talking about United Ireland,” one such critic exclaimed, “but, Jesus, we are not allowed to talk about that. That is in the cupboard. We need to recognise we are a republican party, and the unionists know it.”

A recent debate on RTÉ’s Claire Byrne Live caused internal upset after the lion’s share of the attention was given to exchanges between Leo Varadkar and Mary Lou McDonald, going to the heart of the fears that members have that the party is “becoming irrelevant”.

The violent scenes in Northern Ireland in recent days, however, have convinced others that Martin’s caution has been vindicated, and better reflects the views of a majority of voters in the Republic, despite the clamour by some for early preparations for a referendum.

Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Michael McGrath is seen as a front-runner in the event of a Fianna Fáil leadership contest. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Michael McGrath is seen as a front-runner in the event of a Fianna Fáil leadership contest. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

There are many other big questions but two more stand out: can Fianna Fáil TDs stomach handing over the Taoiseach’s office to Varadkar in a year and a half? And what are the party’s prospects if an election is called?

On the first question, only time will tell. On the second, there are fears of another wipeout, and although commentators should always be wary of writing off a party such as Fianna Fáil, this is a real worry for some.

One doomy prediction offered was that if an election was held tomorrow, and the party was polling as low as 11 per cent, Fianna Fáil would struggle to hold on to any of its seats in Dublin, except perhaps for Darragh O’Brien.

And then there is the issue of the financial health of the party and its ability to fight elections, given that hundreds of thousands of euro has been lost in church-gate collections and national super-draws that can no longer happen.

Despite all of the grumbles about Martin, there are many in Fianna Fáil behind the scenes who are deeply frustrated by party’s self-cannibalisation. Fianna Fáil, they say, remains the largest party in Seanad, Dáil and local government.

Public bloodletting does nothing but damage the brand, they argue. Approaches its 100th anniversary, it is clear it is going to take more than a new leader to fix the deep and complicated issues facing Fianna Fáil.


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Census 2022 – what difference does it make?

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Next Sunday, April 3rd, is Census night. Millions of people in homes countrywide will fill in page after page of questions, some of which are deeply personal and many of which might be unfamiliar.

But what it is it all about?

At a basic level, Census 2022 will be used to inform planning of public policy and services in the years ahead, according to the Central Statistics Office.

The questions will cover a range of environmental, employment and lifestyle issues, including the use of renewable energy sources in homes.

The questions will help inform policy development in the areas of energy and climate action, and the prevalence of internet access, to understand the availability of and need for internet connections and range of devices used to access the internet.

Questions also focus on changes in work patterns and will include the trend of working from home and childcare issues, while questions are also asked about the times individuals usually leave work, education or childcare, to help identify and plan for transport pattern needs locally and nationally.

Other topics covered include volunteering and the type of organisations volunteers choose to support, tobacco usage and the prevalence of smoke alarms in the home.

And of course there is a time capsule – the chance to write something which will be sealed for the next 100 years.

In this episode of In The News, the head of census administration Eileen Murphy and statistician Kevin Cunningham about what it all means for us.

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Oscars 2022: Will Smith makes Oscar history after slapping Chris Rock over joke about wife Jada Pinkett Smith | Culture

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Will Smith took the Oscar for Best Actor at last night’s 94th Academy Awards, but he also became the protagonist of the ceremony for other reasons. The night was following the script, until Smith slapped comedian Chris Rock on the stage after the latter made a joke about the shaved head of the former’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. Rock had quipped that he was “looking forward to GI Jane 2,” in reference to her look. Pinkett Smith has revealed publicly that she has alopecia. It looked as if the moment had been planned, until Smith went back to his seat and shouted: “Get my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth.”

The moment, which immediately became Oscar history but for all the wrong reasons, left the attendees with frozen smiles, and asking themselves whether it was possible that a veteran such as Smith could have lost his cool in front of tens of millions of people. After taking the prize for Best Actor, the superstar actor made a tearful apology, saying that he hoped the Academy “will invite me back.” Later on, actor Anthony Hopkins called for “peace and love,” but it was already too late. The incident overshadowed the success of CODA, which took the Oscar for Best Picture. Just like the time when Warren Beatty mistakenly named La La Land as the big winner of the night, no one will speak about anything else from last night’s awards.

At first sight, Smith’s actions looked as if they were scripted. When he first heard Rock’s joke, he laughed. But his wife was seen on camera rolling her eyes, and it was then that the actor got up onto the stage and hit Rock. When he returned to his seat he raised his voice twice to shout “Get my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth,” sending a wave of unease and shock through the attending audience. The fact that he used the f-word, which is prohibited on US television, set alarm bells ringing that this was real and not a planned moment. In fact, the curse word was censored by the broadcaster, ABC, in the United States.

During a break, Smith’s PR manager approached him to speak. In the press room, which the actor skipped after collecting his prize, instructions were given to the journalists not to ask questions about the incident, Luis Pablo Beauregard reports. The next presenter, Sean “Diddy” Combs, tried to calm the situation. “Will and Chris, we’re going to solve this – but right now we’re moving on with love,” the rapper said.

When Smith took to the stage to collect his Best Actor award for his role as Richard Williams – the father of tennis stars Venus and Serena – in King Richard, he referred to the character as “a fierce defender of his family.” He continued: “I’m being called on in my life to love people and to protect people and to be a river to my people. I know to do what we do you’ve got to be able to take abuse, and have people talk crazy about you and have people disrespecting you and you’ve got to smile and pretend it’s OK.”

He explained that fellow actor Denzel Washington, who also spoke to Smith during a break, had told him: “At your highest moment, be careful, that’s when the devil comes for you.”

“I want to be a vessel for love,” Smith continued. “I want to be an ambassador of that kind of love and care and concern. I want to apologize to the Academy and all my fellow nominees. […] I look like the crazy father just like they said about Richard Williams, but love will make you do crazy things,” he said. He then joked about his mother, who had not wanted to come to the ceremony because she had a date with her crochet group.

The Los Angeles Police Department released a statement last night saying that Chris Rock would not be filing any charges for assault against Smith. “LAPD investigative entities are aware of an incident between two individuals during the Academy Awards program,” the statement read. “The incident involved one individual slapping another. The individual involved has declined to file a police report. If the involved party desires a police report at a later date, LAPD will be available to complete an investigative report.”

On December 28, Pinkett Smith spoke on social media about her problems with alopecia. She stated that she would be keeping her head shaved and would be dealing with the condition with humor. “Me and this alopecia are going to be friends… Period!” she wrote on Instagram.



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House-price inflation set to stay double digit for much of 2022

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House-price inflation is expected to remain at double-digit levels for much of 2022 as the mismatch between what is for sale and what buyers want continues.

Two new reports on the housing market paint a picture of a sector under strain due to a lack of supply and increased demand driven by Covid-related factors such as remote working.

The two quarterly reports, one each from rival property websites myhome.ie and daft.ie, suggest asking prices accelerated again in the first quarter of 2022 as the stock of homes available for sale slumped to a new record low.

Myhome, which is owned by The Irish Times, said annual asking-price inflation was now running at 12.3 per cent.

Price

This put the median or typical asking price for a home nationally at €295,000, and at €385,000 in Dublin.

MyHome said the number of available properties for sale on its website fell to a record low of 11,200 in March, down from a pre-pandemic level of 19,000. The squeeze on supply, it said, was most acute outside Dublin, with the number of properties listed for sale down almost 50 per cent compared with pre-pandemic levels.

It said impaired supply and robust demand meant double-digit inflation is likely until at least mid-2022.

“Housing market conditions have continued to tighten,” said author of the myhome report, Davy chief economist Conall Mac Coille.

“The broad picture of the market in early 2022 remains similar to last year: impaired supply coupled with robust demand due to Ireland’s strong labour market,” he said.

Soure: MyHome.ie

“One chink of light is that new instructions to sell of 7,500 in the first 11 weeks of 2022 are well up from 4,800 in 2021, albeit still below the 9,250 in 2019. The flow of new properties therefore remains impaired,” said Mr Mac Coille.

“Whatever new supply is emerging is being met by more than ample demand. Hence, transaction volumes in January and February were up 13 per cent on the year but pushed the market into ever tighter territory,” he said.

He said Davy was now predicting property-price inflation to average 7 per cent this year, up from a previous forecast of 4.5 per cent, buoyed strong employment growth.

Homes

Daft, meanwhile, said house asking prices indicated the average listed price nationwide in the first quarter of 2022 was €299,093, up 8.4 per cent on the same period in 2021 and and just 19 per cent below the Celtic Tiger peak, while noting increases remain smaller in urban areas, compared to rural.

Just 10,000 homes were listed for sale on its website as of March 1st, an all-time low. In Dublin, Cork and Galway cities, prices in the first quarter of 2022 were roughly 4 per cent higher on average than a year previously, while in Limerick and Waterford cities the increases were 7.6 per cent and 9.3 per cent respectively.

The report’s author, Trinity College Dublin economist Ronan Lyons, said: “Inflation in housing prices remains stubbornly high – with Covid-19 disturbing an equilibrium of sorts that had emerged, with prices largely stable in 2019 but increasing since.

“As has been the case consistently over the last decade, increasing prices – initially in Dublin and then elsewhere – reflect a combination of strong demand and very weak supply.”


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