The Irish Independent political team have put together an analysis of the leaders of the five main political parties as voters prepare to weigh up the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) of each one.
Leo Varadkar – Fine Gael
Leo Varadkar’s key strength going into the 2020 General Election is the simple fact that he is Taoiseach. He runs the country, has his fingers on the purse strings and has been dishing out money to voters for the last three years. Welfare payments are up, taxes are down and almost every sports club in the country has been given some sort of a grant. By the nature of the office and his dedication to media exposure, Mr Varadkar is also simply more well-known to the general voter.
The Taoiseach has also proven himself to be a deft-hand in international relations and negotiations following his Brexit summit with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Mr Varadkar is also quite a talented debater having honed his skills with the Trinity College historical society. He has a drawer full of political rebuttals which he unleashes on his political opponents when confronted in the Dáil on his Government’s failings.
Mr Varadkar has come a long way from the days when his colleagues considered him aloof and even slightly odd. But he can still come across as lacking empathy and overly defensive in media interviews. He prefers to find fault in criticisms of himself rather than address the issue at hand. Even if it is a homeless child or a sick elderly patient, the Taoiseach will seek to find a flaw in any accusation that his Government has let someone down. Sometimes it’s best to say sorry and promise to try fix the system failing.
He is also not a natural campaigner. The ground war of door-to-door canvassing has never been the Taoiseach’s strong point and his interactions with the public can seem stilted and a little awkward. A leader’s tour of the country will force him to interact with voters on a daily basis on a scale he has never really experienced before. Fine Gael wants him to be front and centre of this campaign so he will have to up his game in this area.
The Taoiseach has the unique opportunity over any other party leader to highlight his key role in Brexit negotiations and note the relationships he has developed with other EU leaders. There is still a lot of running to be done on Brexit and Varadkar will spend the campaign detailing how he and Tanaiste Simon Coveney were instrumental in securing a withdrawal agreement which protected Irish interests. He can also point to the restored Northern Assembly as another example of statecraft.
The Taoiseach will also play up his liberal credentials and point to his involvement in the marriage equality and 8th amendment referendums. Varadkar was influential in both votes and is internationally seen as one of a new wave of socially liberal leaders such as Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron.
Mr Varadkar may only have been the Taoiseach for three years, but Fine Gael has been in office for nine and a fickle electorate may be looking for change. There have been plenty of controversies during his time in office and there has been a lot of focus on his Government’s ability to manage spending on major infrastructure projects. The billion euro costs of the National Children’s Hospital and Rural Broadband Plan damaged Fine Gael’s image of being the financially prudent party.
Fianna Fáil obviously poses the main threat to Fine Gael returning to power with the odds on Micheál Martin in most bookmakers to be the next Taoiseach. The Fianna Fáil leader will be pushing a ‘substance over spin’ message during the campaign and will be eager to target Fine Gael’s focus on public relations rather than getting things done.
The Green Party will also be a problem for Fine Gael, with a lot of middle class urban voters expected to lean towards Eamon Ryan’s party rather than them. Fine Gael has ramped up their interest in environmental matters in recent times, but the Greens will be the go-to party for those interested in climate action.
Micheál Martin – Fianna Fáil
Of all the party leaders facing the electorate, Micheál Martin has the most government experience. He was first elected to the Dáil in 1989 and has held four Cabinet posts in various Fianna Fáil-led governments including Education, Health, Enterprise and Foreign Affairs. The workplace smoking ban – introduced during his tenure as health minister – was a massively successful public health initiative and he can point to this as one of the key achievements of his career.
He took over the leadership of Fianna Fáil in 2011. From it’s election disaster that year – after voters punished the party for the economic crash – he more than doubled his Dáil numbers in 2016. Mr Martin showed he was in tune with the Irish people in supporting more liberal abortion laws even while most of his TDs opposed this. He has made a good argument that Fianna Fáil has played a responsible role in facilitating the Fine Gael-led minority government since then, particularly given the threat of Brexit.
Unfairly or not, critics have long claimed Mr Martin is a ditherer, often pointing to the many reports and studies he ordered during his tenure as health minister. His swift action to sack ‘vote-gate’ TDs Timmy Dooley and Niall Collins from the Fianna Fáil front bench is perhaps a push-back against his alleged reputation for indecisiveness. But that saga caused other problems for his party as it exposed lax voting practices in the Dáil involving key members of his team like Lisa Chambers.
While his experience in government is a strength, it’s also a vulnerability. Many voters still haven’t forgotten that Mr Martin was a senior member of the Fianna Fáil-led governments which oversaw the Celtic Tiger property boom and subsequent disastrous economic crash. A decade on, there is still lingering anger at the resulting unemployment and emigration.
The recent by-elections – which saw Fianna Fáil take two seats – one in Cork North Central and the other in Wexford – has certainly lent momentum to Mr Martin’s party. There’s no doubt that public dissatisfaction over crises in health and housing will dog Fine Gael’s election campaign. Mr Martin’s party will have to successfully persuade voters it has the solutions to the huge problems in both areas, and despite growing economic prosperity, the current government should be thrown out.
The 2016 election saw many prominent Fianna Fáil figures elected without running mates. Senior TDs like Barry Cowen and Willie O’Dea will be under pressure to secure two seats in their constituencies. Mr Martin will be in poll position to form the next government if he can overtake Fine Gael as the largest party. The likes of the Greens and Labour may be more open to coalition with Mr Martin than Leo Varadkar, after almost ten years of Fine Gael in power.
Mr Martin may still end up being the first Fianna Fáil leader who does not serve as Taoiseach. This is his third election at the helm and if he doesn’t end up in Government Buildings this time, his days as leader may be numbered. Fianna Fáil failed to win either of the by-elections in Dublin last November. It will need to perform well in the capital if Mr Martin has any hope of taking power.
The Fianna Fáil leader may also find Mr Varadkar to be a more formidable opponent in TV debates than his predecessor Enda Kenny was in 2016. This campaign is likely to see the pair face-off in head-to-head clashes which didn’t happen the last time. The stakes are high for Mr Martin in this election as he faces perhaps his biggest test as Fianna Fáil leader.
Eamon Ryan – Green Party
Despite his youthful appearance, he has over two decades experience at all levels in elected politics from councillor to TD to Minister. He was Communications Minister from 2007-2011 in an ill-starred coalition with Fianna Fáil.
He showed courage in soldiering through tough years of economic collapse in government. When the party suffered an electoral wipe-out in the 2011 election, he then led a steady re-build with a new generation of members and activists. He also used the “wilderness years” to strengthen EU and international links with other Green Parties. This is reinforced by the party’s two Euro MEPs, Ciarán Cuffe (Dublin) and Grace O’Sullivan (South).
Environmental issues are now high on voters’ priority lists – especially younger voters more likely to live long enough to reap the consequences of global warming, climate change and the devastation of wildlife. This is the view across the EU and beyond.
Ryan is hardworking, likeable, telegenic and affable. He insists he will talk to all corners in coalition negotiations while the final decision rests with party members who must vote by two-thirds majority for joining government.
He allows himself to be sometimes side-tracked into peripheral issues not relevant to immediate work. At times he blunders into topics without having given it more political thought.
His talk about vague long-term proposals to re-introduce wolves to Ireland is a good example of this. He sometimes likes the “vision thing” a little too much which is not everyone’s idea of fun. He is vulnerable to being labelled Dublin-centric, despite long-standing rural links. He is similarly vulnerable to being accused of having too narrow a political focus though the party has worked to broaden its policy areas. Like too many politicians, he can sometimes be long-winded, favouring three words where one would do the job.
Prospects of Eamon Ryan’s party having enough TDs to join coalition second time around opens many opportunities. He has already paid to learn how to manage around senior civil servants, also known as the “permanent government.”
Last time his department secretary general presented him with the boxed set of the vintage BBC political comic satire, “Yes Minister.” He insists it is still required viewing for any minister and still relevant. After the 2011 meltdown, the party rebuilt slowly. If current opinion poll showings are borne out on polling day, they could have up to six Dáil seats – on a good day, with strong transfers, the Green Party could break double digits.
All the other parties have persistently stolen his and the Green Party’s clothes in terms of policy. Given the primacy of environmental issues in politics, that theft will only intensify. In a worst case scenario, that could render the party redundant.
All going well in the election, and assuming the numbers fall right, he could still struggle to get the necessary two-third members’ vote to approve joining coalition. Communicating, and keeping a group of newcomers to Green Party politics calm during inevitable coalition crises, will also be a huge job.
The 2008 recession showed Irish voters view on dealing with environmental issues as “mainly for the boom.” All small parties suffer disproportionately when coalition goes wrong. The Greens’ immediate post-coalition suffering was worse than Labour or other small parties.
Mary Lou McDonald – Sinn Féin
A former MEP who has been a Dublin Central TD since 2011, Ms McDonald was long-tipped to succeed Gerry Adams before she finally did in February 2018.
Straight-talking McDonald has been successful for many years in articulating Sinn Féin’s position on issues in a clear and concise manner. Her long spell on the Public Accounts Committee showed she was a sharp inquisitor of public officials and she would likely adopt the same discerning approach with civil servants if she was in government.
Being the only female party leader of the five main parties will matter in the all-important TV debates and her south Dublin rearing means she carries none of the baggage of her predecessor. Her presence should theoretically broaden Sinn Féin’s appeal to those who were averse to the party when it was led by Mr Adams and the late Martin McGuinness.
In the most-recent presidential, local, European and Westminster elections, Sinn Féin’s vote share has fallen dramatically, costing it two MEPs, dozens of councillors and thousands of votes North and south.
There is a sense – borne out in opinion polls – that Sinn Féin is no longer as popular as it was in the post-austerity era and that its rapid growth in recent years has stalled with the economy recovering.
Ms McDonald’s long-planned ascension to the top job was supposed to herald a sea-change in public sentiment towards Sinn Féin and draw in more voters, but there is no indication of that having happened.
She has failed to distance herself from much of what turns voters off Sinn Féin, including the dogged defence of its position on many legacy issues and the party’s links to the Provisional IRA . She has also failed to shake the perception that control of the party still resides with people based out of west Belfast.
Ms McDonald will hope the recent Dáil by-election win in Dublin Mid-West is evidence that voters angry with the government and its underpinning by Fianna Fáil are listening to Sinn Féin’s alternative ideas for health and housing.
Building on its 2016 haul of 23 seats – or at the very least holding most of them – would make it increasingly difficult for the two main parties to ignore Sinn Féin in any post-election coalition-building. Furthermore, Ms McDonald has repeatedly said her party wants to enter government and has shown as much in going back into Stormont in recent days. It stands in sharp contrast to Sinn Féin’s opposition to entering government with either of the two parties after the 2016 election.
Her trump card could be the glaring contradiction for some voters in the position of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil demanding that Sinn Féin enter power-sharing in the North, while doggedly refusing to entertain such a prospect south of the border.
In the 2016 general election campaign, Sinn Féin was bogged down for several days in a damaging defence of its demand for the abolition of the special criminal court. Another such controversy cannot be ruled out given Ms McDonald’s elevation has not led to any sea-change in such questionable policies.
In championing an alternative to what she has dubbed the “cosy consensus” of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin might find itself squeezed out by other opposition parties like Labour and the Greens whose experience of government arguably makes them a more credible prospect for voters.
On current polling, it will be a tall order for Sinn Féin to maintain much less build on its 23 seats in 2016. Such a result may well threaten Ms McDonald’s own future as leader of the party and prompt a radical rethink of its direction under someone else.
Brendan Howlin – Labour Party
The former senator has been a member of the Dáil for Wexford since 1987, a veteran of two coalitions and a senior minister in three departments, including Health and Public Expenditure. So Mr Howlin has no shortage of experience of how government works.
Although Labour’s ill-fated coalition with Fine Gael between 2011 and 2016 is much-criticised, he brought about a series of public sector reforms, made budgeting more transparent and negotiated a new public sector pay deal with unions, while ensuring relative industrial peace during the worst years of austerity.
Mr Howlin has shown himself to be a smart leader and manager of his parliamentary ranks. He adeptly handled the man in Labour who most wants his job, Alan Kelly, by allowing him to take the lead on issues like CervicalCheck, and as a result garnering positive headlines for the party as a whole.
Labour has been stagnant in the polls for four years under Mr Howlin who has not provided the sort of radical and dynamic leadership it needed after its 2016 mauling by voters. He spent much of his first two years as leader defending Labour’s actions in the previous government.
He has also faced calls to step down from within his own ranks, including from councillors, while in 2018 Mr Kelly sounded alarm bells by calling for a “change of direction”. Mr Kelly later backed off a heave with little support for the idea in the parliamentary party.
After the election, Mr Howlin, who is 63, may wish to re-enter government for one last time before retirement. On the other hand, many in Labour think the party needs at least two terms in opposition. It is the sort of clash that may prove fatal for his leadership.
Mr Howlin’s ambitious target is to double its current number of Dáil seats and return 14 TDs. A credible local election performance as well as strong showings in the by-elections would indicate that Labour is no longer as toxic as it was in 2016.
In Áodhán Ó Ríordáin in Dublin Bay North and Ged Nash in Louth, it has two former ministers who are well-placed to return to the Dáil as well as a slate of promising younger candidates like Rebecca Moynihan in Dublin South-Central and Duncan Smith in Dublin Fingal, who would be effective in the Dáil.
While the debate over re-entering government rages within the party, the tight Dáil arithmetic could give Labour a very strong hand in any coalition-building after the election and Mr Howlin’s decades of experience will make him a tough negotiator.
The Dublin Fingal by-election may have been portent of what’s to come as Labour was squeezed out by the Green Party for a Dáil seat it had been tipped to take. Many centre-left voters who traditionally lean towards Labour, particularly in urban areas, may find the climate crisis too hard to ignore and instead give their vote to the Greens.
Mr Howlin also risks having his record of having overseen swingeing austerity in government between 2011 and 2014 thrown back in his face by other parties on the left during the campaign.
His leadership of the party is also doubted by many within it. Mr Kelly aside, Mr Ó Ríordáin, who is one of the contenders to succeed Mr Howlin, said last summer that the local election result was a basis for “generational renewal” after this forthcoming election.
Therefore, the greatest threat to Mr Howlin may come from within.