Earlier in August, I wrote an article discussing the coalition troubles that were plaguing the grand coalition in Ireland. I also noted some ways that it could fall. We can add another cause of instability in Ireland: a leadership struggle.
A Fight for Leadership
Current Taoiseach Micheál Martin is facing backbenchers who are openly putting their name into the ring for leadership. The most notable one is Jim O’Callaghan. O’Callaghan is the current TD for Dublin Bay South. This is a swing constituency; O’Callaghan was elected 4th out of the 4 TDs elected from the district. He notably turned down an appointment to the justice ministry when the coalition was formed. This, in hindsight, was an excellent way to separate himself from the increasingly unpopular Martin.
One of the issues that O’Callaghan has broken with Martin on is the treatment of former Agriculture minister Barry Cowen. He has stated he would have given Cowen more time. This may not be the most popular position within the country, but it does give him a powerful ally. Barry’s brother is former Taoiseach Brian Cowen. Brian left the office with an 8% approval rating, but he still maintains popularity in the Laois–Offaly Constituency in the Dáil. This gives O’Callaghan an opening if he wishes to go against Martin.
O’Callaghan’s judgment was later vindicated when Cowen’s replacement Dara Calleary was fired as Agriculture Minister and as Deputy Leader of Fianna Fáil. This occurred after it came out that Calleary, along with European Commissioner for Trade Phil Hogan, was breaking the lockdown measures that Martins government established. This scandal has undermined the government’s response to COVID-19 and has made Martin seem like a weak leader.
Martin’s Declining Popularity
Martin is down to a 44% approval rating. His Deputy Leader Leo Varadkar has a much higher approval rating of 63%. If this holds once the pandemic is over, Martin might lose an election. If that occurs, he will almost certainly be replaced as the leader, and right now O’Callaghan is the only one making public moves.
Taoiseach Martin’s unpopularity and the rise of Fine Gael in the polls are two factors allowing backbenchers to be more vocal in opposition to the coalition. O’Callaghan has criticized moves by the leadership and he has also floated the possibility of becoming the leader of the party in the future. You can do one of these things and not be seen as someone gunning for a job; however, you cannot do both, and O’Callaghan has done both. He may be flying to close to the sun, but there is tangible displeasure on current leadership and he is capitalizing on it.