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Growing dissent over Micheál Martin's leadership

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An abysmal performance by the Fianna Fáil Party in a Dublin by-election last week has seen Micheál Martin’s (pictured) position as Taoiseach or prime minister in the Irish government come under increasing threat. As Ken Murray reports, sharks are circling within his Party as a growing number of disgruntled back-benchers want a new face to win back lost support.

There’s an old saying that goes: "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer still."

That’s a phrase that Irish Prime Minister or Taoiseach Micheál Martin may have to keep in mind over the coming months as he comes under increasing pressure from within his own ranks if he wants to continue leading his party and government.

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According to the favourite to be next party leader Jim O’Callaghan TD, “I would have thought that it’s unlikely that in 2025 Micheál Martin would be leading Fianna Fáil into an election, that’s just my own view,” he said over the weekend as the current coalition government continues its battle to get the economy back on the road after the ravages of Covid 19.

The Party’s support is down and a combination of Covid fatigue, issues over housing and a closed economy, failure to get its message out or the fact that it entered in to an unthinkable three-way coalition are being cited as some of the reasons for the drop in support.

The current Irish Government whose time in office has been dominated by tackling the spread of the Covid 19 virus, is currently comprised of a unique coalition arrangement following the general election in February 2020.

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The election to the 160-seat Dáil or parliament saw Micheál Martin’s Fianna Fáil win 38 seats or 22.2% of the national vote, Sinn Féin 37, Fine Gael 35, the Greens 12 with an array of left-wing and independents taking the remainder.

After much exploration on the acceptable options to form a new government, Fianna Fáil, led by Micheál Martin, which describes itself as a centre-left republican party, eventually entered office in June 2020 with the centre-right Fine Gael Party led by former Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

As part of the coalition deal, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are operating a rotating Taoiseach arrangement. Martin is in the top job until December 2022 when Leo Varadkar will then succeed him for the run-in to the next election.

Such a coalition would have been unthinkable up to recently as both opposing parties were founded almost 100 years ago following a bitter hostile split from the old Sinn Féin over the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 which saw the British divide Ireland and the ongoing turmoil that followed.

The Green Party is also part of the new coalition but is only ‘inside the tent’, so to speak, to keep the modern-day Sinn Féin out!

To say Micheál Martin’s time as Taoiseach has been tough would be under-stating it.

For all Leaders across the World, Covid-19 and the subsequent lock-down measures have been politically unpopular. In Ireland, the ruling Fianna Fáil has taken something of a hammering from Covid measures in successive opinion polls due to delays in re-opening the economy.

A Red C survey for The Business Post newspaper last month saw Fianna Fáil at 13 per cent, a drop of almost half on its general election performance of 2020 while opponents Fine Gael were up to 30%.

With increased rumblings amongst FF party back-benchers over its performance in government, the recent by-election in the mainly affluent Dublin Bay South constituency was seen by many as a test of the Party and Micheál Martin’s popularity with a worn-down electorate that has been somewhat house-bound since March of last year due to Covid restrictions!

When the votes were counted on Friday last in the by-election, both Fine Gael, which originally held but vacated the seat and Fianna Fáil, got something of a kicking from the local electorate with the seat surprisingly going to Ivana Bacik of the Labour Party which only picked up 4.4% of the national vote last year!

The Fianna Fáil candidate, Deirdre Conroy, received 4.6% of the vote, the worst in the history of the Party! The FF fall in support was 9.2%!

Not surprisingly, a number of Micheál Martin’s disgruntled back-benchers who were overlooked for Cabinet positions last year, have been, metaphorically speaking, sharpening their knives!

Jim O’Callaghan TD who was director of Deirdre Conroy’s ill-fated election campaign pointed the blame for the performance in Micheál Martin’s direction.

Asked if the Taoiseach should lead Fianna Fáil into the next election, were it to go ahead as planned in 2025, Mr O’Callaghan replied in subtle voice, “We’ll have to think about that.”

Barry Cowen TD, who was sacked by Micheál Martin as Agriculture Minister last year after it emerged he wasn’t fully forthcoming over a drink-driving offence, also made it clear that the time has come for his boss to go.

In a statement to fellow TDs or MPs, senators and MEPs, he said that Fianna Fáil’s dismal share of the vote was ‘alarming but strangely, not surprising.”

He went on to call for a special meeting of the parliamentary party during the Summer so that members could discuss in person “the latest bad results and last year’s dismal general election.”

Another party rebel TD calling for a change at the top is Marc McSharry, whose father Ray was EU Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development between 1989 and 1993.

Questioned on Newstalk Radio in Dublin as to whether Micheál Martin should step down, Marc McSharry said, “the sooner the better. It’s not my preference he would lead us in to the next general election.”

Matters haven’t been helped in recent months for Micheál Martin with the news that large numbers of young people are being denied the opportunity to purchase houses due to a sweet-heart tax deal done by the Government with cash-rich foreign vulture funds who’ve ‘invaded’ the Irish market and bought up new housing estates which they in turn rent out at inflated rates to married couples desperate to own a home of their own!

The PR fall-out from this has been disastrous for the Government but moreso for Martin as he is the one in the Taoiseach’s office.

The revelation has caused much anger with younger first and second-time voters who feel the Government has abandoned them, a development that has contributed to a drift in FF support.

Speaking in the aftermath of the Dublin Bay South by-election, a defiant Micheál Martin told reporters that he would lead his Fianna Fáil Party in to the next General Election which is scheduled for 2025.

"My focus is on the government and the people of Ireland, getting through Covid-19, is extremely important. And it is my intention then, [after] the first half of government [when] we do the transition and I'll become Tánaiste [deputy Leader] and it's my intention to lead the party into the next election," he said.

If Fianna Fáil don’t see an improvement in opinion polls over the coming months, his Party may decide it’s time for change at the top.

In the meantime, the political sniping from disgruntled back-benchers in the Party looks set to continue.

Ireland

Simon Coveney: Irish foreign minister to face confidence vote

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Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney (pictured) is to face a confidence vote later when the Dáil (Irish parliament) returns from its summer recess, writes the BBC.

Coveney has been criticized for his handling of the appointment of former government minister Katherine Zappone as a UN special envoy.

He has denied that he was lobbied to appoint her but apologised for not informing cabinet before a meeting in July.

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She has since turned down the post.

Sinn Féin has tabled a motion of no confidence in Mr Coveney, but the government is to put down a counter, confidence motion which will be debated by TDs (members of parliament) and voted on later.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin, of Fianna Fáil, described it as an "oversight" that Coveney had not informed his government colleagues about the appointment ahead of the cabinet meeting, a move which has been reported to have caused divisions.

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Coveney's party, Fine Gael, is part of a coalition with Fianna Fáil and the Green Party.

Katherine Zappone
Katherine Zappone was a ministerial colleague of Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar

It later emerged that Coveney's party leader Leo Varadkar had not been aware of the appointment of a "Special Envoy to the UN for Freedom of Opinion and Expression" until a week before cabinet, when Zappone texted him about it.

In messages released by Varadkar in September, he showed that he subsequently asked Coveney about the role before the cabinet meeting in July.

Zappone replied that her contract was soon to be finalised.

On 4 August, Zappone announced she would not take on the special envoy position as she believed "it is clear that criticism of the appointment process has impacted the legitimacy of the role itself".

Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald has called for Coveney to be sacked and raised the prospect of a vote of no confidence.

She branded his actions as not being "of the standard expected of a minister".

The Labour Party has indicated that it does not have confidence in the government, but leader Alan Kelly said there were "bigger issues" than the row.

On Tuesday (14 September), Coveney told a party conference that he was "embarrassed" that the appointment had led to a "fiasco".

"It's not been my finest month in politics," he said.

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Brexit

Commission approves €10 million Irish support measure for fishery sector in the context of Brexit

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The European Commission has approved, under EU state aid rules, a €10 million Irish scheme to support the fishery sector affected by the withdrawal of the UK from the EU, and the consequent quota share reductions foreseen in the provisions of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) between the EU and the UK. The support will be available to companies that commit to temporarily cease their fishing activities for a month.

The aim of the scheme is to save part of the Irish reduced fishing quota for other vessels, while the beneficiaries temporarily suspend their activities. The compensation will be granted as a non-refundable grant, calculated on the basis of gross earnings averaged for the fleet size, excluding the cost of fuel and food for the crew of the vessel. Each eligible company will be entitled to the support for up to a month in the period between 1 September to 31 December 2021. The Commission assessed the measures under Article 107(3)(c) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), which allows Member States to support the development of certain economic activities or regions, under certain conditions.The Commission found that the measure enhances the sustainability of the fishery sector and its ability to adapt to new fishing and market opportunities arising from the new relationship with the UK.

Therefore, the measure facilitates the development of this sector and contributes to the objectives of the Common Fisheries Policy to ensure that fishing and aquaculture activities are environmentally sustainable in the long term. The Commission concluded that the measure constitutes an appropriate form of support in order to facilitate an orderly transition in the EU fishery sector following the withdrawal of the UK from the EU. On this basis, the Commission approved the scheme under EU State aid rules.

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Today's (3 September) decision does not prejudge whether the support measure will eventually be eligible for Brexit Adjustment Reserve ‘BAR' funding, which will be assessed once the BAR Regulation has entered into force. However, it already provides Ireland with legal certainty that the Commission considers the support measure to be compliant with EU State aid rules, irrespective of the ultimate source of funding. The non-confidential version of the decision will be made available under the case number SA.64035 in the state aid register on the Commission's competition website once any confidentiality issues have been resolved.

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Unmasked: 23 detained over COVID-19 business email compromise fraud

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A sophisticated fraud scheme using compromised emails and advance-payment fraud has been uncovered by authorities in Romania, the Netherlands and Ireland as part of an action co-ordinated by Europol. 

On 10 August, 23 suspects were detained in a series of raids carried out simultaneously in the Netherlands, Romania and Ireland. In total, 34 places were searched. These criminals are believed to have defrauded companies in at least 20 countries of approximately €1 million. 

The fraud was run by an organised crime group which prior to the COVID-19 pandemic already illegally offered other fictitious products for sale online, such as wooden pellets. Last year the criminals changed their modus operandi and started offering protective materials after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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This criminal group – composed of nationals from different African countries residing in Europe, created fake email addresses and webpages similar to the ones belonging to legitimate wholesale companies. Impersonating these companies, these criminals would then trick the victims – mainly European and Asian companies, into placing orders with them, requesting the payments in advance in order for the goods to be sent. 

However, the delivery of the goods never took place, and the proceeds were laundered through Romanian bank accounts controlled by the criminals before being withdrawn at ATMs. 

Europol has been supporting this case since its onset in 2017 by: 

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  • Bringing together the national investigators on all sides who have seen been working closely together with Europol’s European Cybercrime Centre (EC3) to prepare for the action day;
  • providing continuous intelligence development and analysis to support the field investigators, and;
  • deploying two of its cybercrime experts to the raids in the Netherlands to support the Dutch authorities with cross-checking in real-time information gathered during the operation and with securing relevant evidence. 

Eurojust co-ordinated the judicial co-operation in view of the searches and provided support with the execution of several judicial cooperation instruments.

This action was carried out in the framework of the European Multidisciplinary Platform Against Criminal Threats (EMPACT).

The following law enforcement authorities were involved in this action:

  • Romania: National Police (Poliția Română)
  • The Netherlands: National Police (Politie)
  • Ireland: National Police (An Garda Síochána)
  • Europol: European Cybercrime Centre (EC3)
     
EMPACT

In 2010 the European Union set up a four-year policy cycle to ensure greater continuity in the fight against serious international and organised crime. In 2017 the Council of the EU decided to continue the EU Policy Cycle for the 2018 - 2021 period. It aims to tackle the most significant threats posed by organised and serious international crime to the EU. This is achieved by improving and strengthening cooperation between the relevant services of EU member states, institutions and agencies, as well as non-EU countries and organizations, including the private sector where relevant. Cybercrime is one of the priorities for the Policy Cycle.

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