Government transition could prove trickier than expected

The Taoiseach visited The Irish Times offices last week and sat down for an interview you may have seen over the week. He focused on Northern Ireland, the prospects for a border ballot, his Shared Island initiative – which is likely to be one of his legacies – and he also touched on the shortcomings, as he sees them, of the approach of Sinn Féin and the DUP.

But the Taoiseach also answered a few questions on other topics. Among them were his plans for a move later this year that Irish politics had never attempted before – the big switcheroo in the Taoiseach’s office, when Fianna Fáil hands over the reins to Fine Gael, leaving Micheál Martin in the Taoiseach’s office. Tánaiste with Leo Varadkar returning as Head of Government.

Martin described it as “an important moment to demonstrate that in a fragmented political system we can have continuity in government”. He thinks it’s a challenge that the political center (as he defines it, anyway) has to show that it can overcome a necessary part of showing that former rivals (turned enemies, turned coalition allies) can share power and provide a stable government that maintains a lid on internal tensions and works together to achieve common goals.

“I invest a lot of thought into making sure it happens properly and in a way that adds to the strength of government,” he said.

However, there is no special unit in his department to handle the transition. Instead, he says, it can be thought through and implemented by the structures around the three party leaders who currently manage the day-to-day running of the Coalition.

Although there is a danger here; the transition could turn out to be more delicate than expected. Here are seven reasons why:

1 Micheál Martin is riding a wave of popularity. The things that drive this – a general feeling, evidenced by polls, that the government is doing well; Martin’s evident dedication to work; approval on the management of the Covid; and just being Taoiseach – will continue for the foreseeable future. Which means it’s likely that Martin will be more popular by the fall, while his replacement isn’t. According to a former government official: “People will ask, ‘This Micheál is doing a decent job. Why are they dumping him for this other guy?

The government will have to sell the change in a way that goes beyond: “Of course it’s Fine Gael’s turn now.” It takes a rationale and explanation that doesn’t sound like jobs for the boys for an audience that’s very sensitive to that particular wheeze.

2 The second problem is that there is no playbook for it. Officials joke that the first question asked when a problem arises is: what did we do last time? There’s a lot of truth to that, though – it’s one of the strengths (and one of the weaknesses) of strong institutional memory. But on a practical level, someone will have to determine ab initio what are the steps and processes of such a reorganization of government. It’s not something that can be done on the fly.

3 Redesigns. Most party leaders hate reshuffles because you always end up disappointing more people (and maybe making enemies of them) than you want. Look at how much trouble Martin caused in his own party with his first-time Cabinet picks. “Redesigns,” says one person who has been involved in several, “are always a shit show.” So now we’re gonna have two shitty shows. There will be months of maneuvering, anxiety, rumors, uncertainties, and then months of fallout. Handsome.

4 The great switcheroo will herald the start of a long campaign for the leadership of Fianna Fáil. Last summer, it was speculated that Martin’s vacation from the party leadership would coincide with his exit from the Taoiseach’s office (if it even lasted that long). But Martin’s position has since transformed, and he will almost certainly move to the Tánaiste’s office. But for how long ? Few expect him to lead the party in the next election, and just as being Taoiseach boosted his ratings, not being Taoiseach will have the opposite effect. It will be some time before the sharks smell blood in the water, but that day will come.

5 The DPP’s impending decision on whether Varadkar will be charged could complicate the run-in of the change. I think it will probably be done by then, but I could be wrong. I know two senior government officials who don’t share this view and think the issue could be a huge complication later in the year. If it is not concluded – or if it is decided to prosecute others involved – it will overshadow the whole process.

6 The period ahead will be difficult for public finances, as the state shifts from debt-financed pandemic spending to tax-financed current spending levels. While tax revenues remain strong, the transition will be politically strained as the Coalition moves from pumping money at every issue to prioritizing it. At the same time, inflation is inflating the cost of living and interest rates are expected to rise, further compressing real incomes while costing the government more to borrow. The tightening of public finances will inevitably lead to a contraction of policy options.

7 Finally, as the National Maternity showed us this week, events have a habit of jumping on the feet and biting governments in the back. Because so much of the government’s attention will be directed towards change, it makes unforeseen crises more likely. As things stand, this government has an impressive record of self-inflicted accidents. It would be naïve to assume that this trend will disappear.

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