Jeffrey Donaldson was born in 1962, Micheál Martin in 1960. Looking at them, Martin seems somehow older – another generation from Donaldson. Maybe that’s because Micheál has considerably less hair on his head. But both are the same political age. Micheál became a full-time politician when he was elected to Cork Corporation in 1985; Jeffrey was elected to the NI Assembly in the same year.
Look at the opinion polls and there are more similarities. The party that Micheál leads, Fianna Fáil, is on 13% – not a nice place to be. In the North, Jeffrey leads the DUP , which is on 13% – an equally not-nice place to be, although Micheál’s party has been bumping along the bottom for some time, whereas Jeffrey’s party has only recently joined it on the ocean floor. Worse still, the party that both Micheál and Jeffrey most hate and fear, Sinn Féin, tops the opinion poll in both jurisdictions. In the south it’s on 29% today – most popular party and party leader in the state – and in the north it’s on 25%.
Now before somebody yells that opinion polls are only a snapshot at a particular point in time and that the only poll that counts is the one on election – I’m completely with you. But ask yourself this: who’s most likely to toss and groan in their bed at night, the party leader whose party tops the opinion polls or the party leader whose party is a country mile behind?
Why are Fianna Fáil and the DUP in such a sorry state? The answer is complicated but one major reason is internal ruputure. Fianna Fáil will be faced with a vote of no confidence in FG’s Simon Coveney in the Dáil this Wednesday at 6:00 pm. (Yes, Virginia, Simon Coveney is a FG TD, not a FF TD; but he is also a Cabinet minister in the government led by Micheál Martin.) The FF leader has shown how worried he is by declaring that any FF TD who votes against Coveney on Wednesday will be suspended by the party. He’s had to do this because there are and have been rumblings from FF TDs such as John McGuinness, Barry Cowen and Jim O’Callaghan that they’re not wildly keen on him continuing as leader.
Up north Jeffrey is feeling the lash too. He is the third leader the DUP has had this year; the Edwin Poots wing of the DUP will neither forgive or forget that Jeffrey was central to their man being forced to resign after all of twenty-two days as leader.
So, in an attempt to win back voters who have drifted into the TUV, Jeffrey has declared that the much-debated Protocol must undergo radical surgery or he will pull down Stormont and seek to “refresh” the DUP mandate with voters. Just like Boris Johnson did with the Tories.
This is truly high-wire stuff by Jeffrey. The DUP is in no shape to face the electorate next May, let alone before Christmas. But so appalling is the DUP’s present position, with a revolving door of leaders and voters being syphoned off to the left by Doug Beattie’s UUP and to right by Jim Allister’s TUV, Jeffrey figures it’s time to dump the mild Christian routine and get in there, fists flailing. Were Jeffrey’s tough talk to result in a radical trimming of the protocol, the sun could well shine again for Jeffrey’s DUP and even his internal critics would have their gobs stopped.
So too Micheál’s back-me-or-sack-me party meeting this Wednesday may result in party rebels wondering if the divil they know mightn’t be better than the divil they don’t know.
Both men insist they are in charge, the future is bright. But observe the wrinkled brow, consider the sharp anxious tone. You’d have to have a heart of brass not to feel for the two of them.