MUCH of the talk around Taoiseach Micheál Martin in the past year has been about when he will stand down as leader of Fianna Fáil, a position he has held since 2011.
Plenty of his own troops have come out publicly to say he should resign at the time he is due to hand over the Taoiseach’s office to Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar, his troublesome Tánaiste.
Few if any see Martin’s claim that he will lead Fianna Fáil into the next general election as credible.
TDs like Barry Cowen, James Lawless, John McGuinness, Jim O’Callaghan, and Michael Moynihan, and senator Malcolm Byrne are among those who have spoken publicly about the need for a new leader in advance of that election.
However, Martin has made it clear he will not make it easy for them to depose him, no matter how much they might want it.
Despite the resignation of long-time critic Marc MacSharry from the party, the failure of the malcontents to mount any sort of serious challenge by way of motion of confidence in their leader in September has undoubtedly bolstered Martin’s position.
It reminds one of how loyal the Fianna Fáil party stayed to Brian Cowen even after the 2010 “Gargle-Gate” incident and the arrival of the Troika later that year.
As Seamus Brennan famously said to Des O’Malley and George Colley when they were seeking to remove Charlie Haughey: “Which one of you is going to slay the dragon?”.
The same problem now also exists for Fianna Fáil. There are plenty of TDs ready to sign a motion of no confidence, but there does not appear to be a dragonslayer ready to present themselves.
Until one does, Martin’s position is safe, and he is odds-on to see out his term as Taoiseach. Under the terms of the programme for government, he is due to relinquish his office in December 2022 to Varadkar and is then set to become Tánaiste.
That point is the natural point for a Cabinet reshuffle, and it is my understanding that what is planned is far more extensive than a simple swapping of the two leaders.
As of now, of the 18 ministers who sit at Cabinet (15 full ministers and three super juniors), Fianna Fáil hold seven, Fine Gael hold seven, and the Green Party has four. Fianna Fáil also holds the AG position.
Now, a straight swap seeing Martin becoming Varadkar’s successor as Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise would be the easy and straightforward thing to do — but one understands the Fianna Fáil leader has other ideas.
Martin, who drove the establishment of the Department of Higher and Further Education, has eyes on taking up the reigns there, which would force Simon Harris either to another portfolio or, dare I say it, out of Cabinet.
Martin, having already served in Foreign Affairs, Education, and Enterprise, may fancy one last challenge on what certainly would be his final lap in Cabinet. It is hard to see him going anywhere else as of now.
Harris and Varadkar are not close, and the Fine Gael leader is deeply suspicious of the manoeuvrings of Harris, who was retained in Cabinet in 2020 while several of Varadkar’s close friends and allies were demoted.
Every reshuffle always has to have at least one casualty, and from a Fine Gael perspective, one suspects Varadkar may be tempted. However, he also has to consider the fact that a discontented Harris outside the tent could make life very difficult for him, so on balance, he may have to keep him.
What is also clear is that Varadkar has resented Harris’ popularity, most especially after the passage of the abortion referendum in 2018.
Political leaders, even strong ones, tend to be suspicious and insecure about their internal party rivals and, as of now, Harris poses the greatest threat to Varadkar, even if a heave is not in the offing.
In addition to the swapping of leaders, I understand it will also see Fianna Fáil relinquish the Chief Whip’s position — currently held by Jack Chambers — to Fine Gael.
We have also been told by Michael McGrath that he expects to swap into the Finance portfolio on the changeover, with Paschal Donohoe going the other way into Public Expenditure and Reform.
If Donohoe remains at Cabinet, that is.
Having ruled out a challenge for the leadership in 2017, he has revelled in the Finance portfolio, and now serves as the president of the Eurogroup of finance ministers. Despite his insistence that he is going nowhere, the strong inkling within Fine Gael is that he is for the high road to greatness in Europe.
There is also a growing school of thought that even if Donohoe stays, he has had a great run in Finance and could be moved elsewhere — say, Foreign Affairs for instance.
So, for Varadkar, if Donohoe does depart or if he does decide to eject Harris, he will have at least one space to fill.
Now, Varadkar could well decide to restore Josepha Madigan to Cabinet given her geographical base and gender. He could do worse than promoting his junior business minister Damien English to Cabinet, but the fact that English was Simon Coveney’s campaign manager in the 2017 party leadership contest could go against him.
What is also clear is that there is an understanding in Cabinet that the Justice ministry, allocated to Helen McEntee, is set to swap parties as part of a deal relating to the appointment of an Attorney General.
Traditionally in Coalition go