From count centre to press conference - an Irish revolution?
It's been a whirlwind couple of days.
There were hints leading up to the General Election that it could herald a seismic shift in Irish politics. That after years of similar governance and almost identical rulers swapping power, an alternative would come to the fore, the youth of Ireland demanding change. I spent 16 hours in Phibblestown on Sunday, watching Dublin West not only elect their first ever Sinn Féin TD, but top the poll ahead of the sitting Taoiseach, in a pattern that was replicated around the country. I stood in the RDS and watched a Green Party candidate beat out the Minister for Finance, and a 23 year-old run the current Fianna Fáil Mayor of Dublin to the final count, and felt it even more. But between these events, in the mix of a whirlwind couple of days, I slipped off for a press conference with Mick McCarthy, and was brutally reminded of the dogged conservatism still hindering the national team. No such youthful uprising, no wave of change and very little optimism as McCarthy all but confirmed his starting eleven for Ireland’s make-or-break playoff semi-final with Slovakia in just 6 weeks will be unchanged.
Brexit and previous "success"
Fine Gael wrongly built their campaign around their management of the UK leaving the EU, harping on at every possible opportunity about something which was effectively them doing a capable, if uninspiring, job of, well, their job. We were told it was only “half-time in Brexit” to the point that you were expecting Simon Coveney to start passing around a pack of Jaffa Cakes while Paschal Donohoe chopped up the oranges. It made sense. It distracted from the massive problems Fine Gael had failed to address in their time in charge, but ultimately it just wasn’t enough to convince people. They kept talking about “much done, more to do”, as they tried to cling onto power for a third successive term, while offering no viable alternatives to an electorate clamouring for change. We were scaremongered about the dangers of going back to Fianna Fáil, and warned of giving Sinn Féin a mandate. Better the devil you know.
“I'll be getting all these different names thrown at me that'll come in and want to play for the very first game. And continuity has been pretty much at the base of all my teams, and they've had that pretty much with the squad. And if you think about the best performance, the Denmark game (1-1 draw at home in November), I did point out to somebody that if I'd been at a club for 10 games, and we'd had the results we had, you'd expect us to be getting better after 10 games and doing exactly the same things, or at least trying to. So, there's not going to be no big change, that's for sure. And if the lads who have been playing are fit, they'll be first in contention.”
Red line issues
Throughout the election, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin told us time and time again that they would not go into coalition with Sinn Féin. He was clear, concise and firm on the matter. This was an uncompromisable, immovable red line issue that he set in stone from the outset. No matter the public outcry, no matter the result of the electorate, they would not do it. It wouldn’t happen. Then came the result, and the subtle shift in tone. Ructions within his own party and simple maths may force his hand, but all of a sudden the language shifted when it suited him, when it might affect his ability to govern.
“I don't really think that all the players are that sensitive that it (being out of form) affects them that greatly. What affects them is not playing, if they're not playing all the way up to the time then that would be a problem... Darren Randoloph, I mean I'd like him to be playing (for new club West Ham) of course. But even if he's not, I might make an exception for him because he's the best we've got by a good stretch… Well his (James McCarthy’s) exception is he's played before. He wouldn't be coming in and making a debut, and it wouldn't be alien to him and all new to him, and he wouldn't be nervous about it. So there's an exception for him, yeah.”
Safe as houses?
Throughout the entire election, it was noticeable just how much Eoghan Murphy was kept out of the public eye. The much-maligned Minister for Housing barely clung onto his position in the Dáil just a few months ago after Sinn Féin attempted to prematurely announce his retirement. He came back stronger than ever, with rents falling nationally for the first time in 8 years just a week before the election itself. Backed to the hilt by his leader, despite all the calls for his head, he was eventually re-elected on the eighth count and will be a TD for the foreseeable future. You get the feeling he could be a County Councillor and Leo would still hand him the housing portfolio over someone like Eoin Ó Broin, who literally wrote the book on housing.
“Glenn Whelan is playing League One football (for Fleetwood Town) now, is that a bit of a worry because he's been a key man for you”
“(laughing) No, not at all. He was playing at Hearts before and... I'm not teaching Glenn Whelan new tricks, I'm not showing him anything to do. Glenn Whelan, as long as he's fit... He'll be running around just as hard in the first division (sic) as he was anywhere else, so, whenever he's fit, he's fine. As long as he's playing… I understand the questions when they're doing well in the Championship, and he (Jayson Molumby) played well yesterday, been doing really well, they're really pleased with him at Millwall… Glenn, for me, who has been the star man in probably 3 or 4 of our games, he has the edge on those... without any doubt.”
Will we be seeing a reshuffle on the front bench, or the starting eleven? Probably not. Waiting to see the new generation of Irish talent truly shine may take longer than it took for Leo Varadkar to be elected on Sunday. But, hey, we had the same two parties in power for the guts of a century and we managed. Maybe in 7 weeks time McCarthy will be hoisted aloft and awkwardly bounced in front of cameras after scraping through on a late count. Anyway, even if we beat Slovakia, it’ll still only be “half-time” in qualification anyway.