At times Fianna Fáil TDs are left to judge the political direction of their party by the mood of their leader rather than by anything he says.
On the biggest political decisions, Micheál Martin does not tell anyone what he means to do. TDs and Senators interpret morsels of information from public statements and comments passed at private meetings as best they can.
Yet while he is well versed in hiding his thoughts, Martin is less adept at hiding his feelings. When he is annoyed and under pressure, his colleagues know. And when he is content, that’s clear too.
About two weeks before the initial confidence and supply deal was finalised in the spring of 2016, senior Fianna Fáil TDs detected a lightness to Martin’s mood that told them he had made a decision he was comfortable with.
The same TDs – kept equally in the dark now as Martin weighs up whether to extend the deal – have sensed a similar mood in their boss in recent weeks. He has, they say, the demeanour of a man whose mind is settled.
The review stage of the confidence and supply talks is drawing to a conclusion , with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael negotiating teams given an overview of Brexit policy. It is widely expected that Martin will offer to open negotiations on an extension to the arrangement underpinning the minority government, possibly for another year. The continuing uncertainty of Brexit is the likeliest peg on which to hang a decision that will need to be sold to some in his party who have long been dissatisfied with propping up Fine Gael.
Sources say the view in the wider parliamentary party is broadly in favour of an extension. Backbench TDs – Deputies such as Eugene Murphy, Pat Casey and Eamon Scanlon – are among those seen as touchstones.
They are said to agree with the logic of an extension – that Varadkar’s standing with the public will fall the longer he is in office – and trust the judgment of their leader. A simpler interest is at play too.
“For most politicians, an election is to be avoided,” said one backbench TD. “They have a guaranteed pay cheque at the end of the month. Why would they risk that?”
Others anticipate that Waterford’s Mary Butler, whose relationship with the party hierarchy soured during the abortion referendum campaign, will join serial rebels John McGuinness and Éamon Ó Cúiv in opposing any extension.
The referendum also influences the view of TDs who want to insulate themselves from its fallout on both sides of the abortion debate.
Fianna Fáil as a whole was split on abortion, yet Martin was a prominent advocate for repeal. Some rural TDs want an extension to allow anti-abortion voters angry with Martin’s personal stance time to forgive. Equally, some in urban areas want more time to allow the perception of Fianna Fáil as an anti-abortion party to dissipate.
TDs in rural constituencies with large party organisations – such as Jackie Cahill in Tipperary and Bobby Aylward in Carlow-Kilkenny – have reflected the views of the wider membership which detests confidence and supply, but they are also expected to fall in behind Martin.
The prospect of an extension has lingered so long that even those on the frontbench who would prefer an election have reconciled themselves to facilitating Fine Gael for longer.
Recent months saw senior figures such as Billy Kelleher, Niall Collins, Barry Cowen and Jim O’Callaghan privately argue that confidence and supply was hindering Fianna Fáil’s growth. But, according to a frontbench colleague, “they have largely gone quiet now”.
Internal party speculation suggested that Cowen and Kelleher fancied standing for the European Parliament next year, but feared Martin would not allow any sitting TDs to do so before the next general election. Both have distanced themselves from this talk.
Yet some on the frontbench see the “death grip” of confidence and supply as reducing their opportunities for cabinet careers. It is not, says one, that they necessarily believe they will be in government after the next election. Rather, according to this line of argument, Martin either leads them into government or is replaced as leader after an unsuccessful election with someone who will abandon confidence and supply and return to a full-blooded opposition that would allow Fianna Fáil attack Varadkar.
At recent meetings, Martin has asked both his parliamentary party and frontbench to trust his judgment, and the overwhelming majority will agree to what he decides.
Exactly what his judgment will be is expected to become apparent in the coming days.