Fine Gael’s faithful gather in Athlone today, at the newly-minted Technological University of the Shannon, for their first full-on conference since the outbreak Covid-19.
niquely, in the party’s and the nation’s history, today’s delegates know with 100pc confidence that their leader, Leo Varadkar, will be Taoiseach in less than a month’s time. That will boost morale for the 2,000 árd fheis delegates.
But a general election is expected in autumn 2024, and their political enemies, Sinn Féin, look likely to head the next government.
The two-and-a-half years since the party joined a coalition with their century-old foes, Fianna Fáil, and the Green Party, have thrown up some extraordinary events.
A global virus shut world economies, quickly followed by the first major war in Europe since 1945.
Let’s run the rule over Fine Gael’s performance since the last election on February 8, 2020. And let’s examine future prospects on six key performance indicators.
In 2002, a blueprint for a badly-battered Fine Gael’s political resurrection noted: “A lousy party can succeed with a brilliant leader – the opposite does not work.” So how brilliant has Leo Varadkar been?
Since he will be Taoiseach again in four weeks, it appears he must not be doing everything wrong. Despite 29 tough months in government, his party’s ranking is much the same as it was in the last – albeit disappointing – election.
Expect advantageous comparisons by FG people with the UK government’s ongoing deep political dysfunction
His personal popularity is also reasonably good, while and he has 40pc government approval.
He has, until recently, laboured under the shadow of a garda investigation into his ill-judged leaking of information.
He has not delivered his vote-getting promise, as billed when he became leader in June 2017. Fine Gael lost 14 seats in 2020 compared with the previous election in 2016.As poll rankings stand, there is no improvement expected next time.
There is some stellar talent, notably Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe, whose collaboration with Public Expenditure Minister Michael McGrath has been the coalition lynchpin. Heather Humphreys projects decency and competence. Helen McEntee and Simon Coveney do not often go wrong.
But there is an image of staleness, with a very samey line-up at the cabinet table since 2011. And with just five cabinet posts, and constraints of gender and geography, Leo Varadkar has little scope to freshen things up.
Some in the junior ranks could improve things. It is becoming a more urgent issue.
The economy has prospered on Fine Gael’s watch, with record numbers at work and a budget surplus. Despite some showboating by Mr Varadkar, there was good government management of the Covid crisis and – so far – not a bad response to cost-of-living challenges.
Despite a rocky first three months in office, Fine Gael has melded well with its coalition colleagues in Fianna Fáil and the Green Party to bring stability. They have helped maintain EU support for Ireland in its beleaguered Brexit position amid London’s chaotic approach.
The response to the Ukrainian war, and the resultant influx of 57,000 Ukrainian migrants, has been a challenge which has stretched the Government. But despite the many problems, the challenges are just about being met. Expect advantageous comparisons by Fine Gael people with the UK government’s ongoing deep political dysfunction. But do remember that this is coming at the argument from the entirely wrong end direction.
Exceptionally slow progress on core issues of health and housing. Note that both these issues are led by Fianna Fáil ministers, who inevitably soak up much of the political blame.
But remember also that Fine Gael has been in government continuously since March 2011 and Fianna Fáil only took the health and housing helms in June 2020. Political defeatism around health blunts some blame, but housing carries recurring potential for public fury.
While nominally backing Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien’s Housing for All plan, there have been strong hints recently that, with a Fine Gael Taoiseach, the party would take more of a hand. This looks like dangerous nonsense.
The party of Garret FitzGerald and John Bruton long traded on its competence in EU matters. In August 2020 Leo Varadkar’s response to ‘Golfgate’ lost Ireland its hold on the third-biggest EU job in Brussels when Phil Hogan was ousted as trade commissioner.
Coalition job-trading now risks losing Paschal Donohoe and Ireland another key EU post, president of the Eurogroup. To lose one EU top job was unfortunate – losing two would smack of carelessness.
Every party political activist wants their champion to be selected, elected and appointed to office.
By that yardstick, Fine Gael’s medium-term future prospects appear uncertain. The second act of this three-party coalition is likely to be quite a few months short of act one.