Martin’s ‘recovery and renewal’ emphasis reflects reality of country and economy beset by Covid-19

Martin’s ‘recovery and renewal’ emphasis reflects reality of country and economy beset by Covid-19

Micheál Martin outlined "recovery and renewal" as the priorities of Ireland's new Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael-Green Party government.

IN his first speech as Taoiseach, Micheál Martin outlined "recovery and renewal" as the priorities of Ireland's new Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael-Green Party government.

It was less a statement of intent and ambition and more a reflection on the stark reality that his new cabinet will face as it takes over in a post-Covid-19 world.

When this election was fought back in January and February, the coronavirus was nowhere on Ireland's radar and Mr Martin, Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar, and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan ran their campaigns on how best the fruits of a surging economy could be spent to tackle the big issues of the day, like healthcare, housing, and the climate emergency.

Four months on, those issues are still in need of urgent attention, but the economic circumstances are wildly different and totally unpredictable in the short-term, let alone the medium or long-term.

With the lockdown lifting and the country gradually ridding itself of the virus - though a surge in case could easily set us back again - the first task of Mr Martin's new cabinet will be finding a way of reopening the economy that's both safe for public health and fruitful for employers and employees alike.

At the same time, new Ministers will have to figure out how to steward their individual portfolios through the unique constraints of these times while instituting the changes they and their stakeholders want and need.

Though the three parties have agreed a programme for government, even the most casual observer of politics knows that they're not worth the paper they're written on. The real negotiation comes in implementing the programme, and there's still a lot of distance between Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and the Greens on many of the big issues.

Based on the appointments made by Mr Martin on the Saturday, it's clear that this coalition will live by the maxim 'keep your enemies close and your enemies closer.'

Take Cork South-Central Fianna Fáil TD Michael McGrath, who'll take over the Department of Public Expenditure while Fine Gael's Paschal Donohoe will hold on to the Department of Finance.

Both men will have a grip on the public coffers, but neither will have full control.

It's the same across the board, with Ministers appointed to mark each other - a shadow cabinet existing within the government itself.

Fianna Fáil will take over agriculture, but under the watchful eye of a Green Party super junior Minister. It's the same for the Green Party and transport, where a Fine Gael super junior will keep be keeping check.

You can expect more of the same approach to portfolio sharing when Mr Martin announces his Ministers of State in the coming days.

In order to build a legacy in a time-limited term, Mr Martin chose healthcare and housing for his party.

Fianna Fáil has made big promises in these areas, both in dire need of serious, costly intervention. But you can be sure that the Greens will have concerns about how far Fianna Fáil's plans will go, while Fine Gael will fret over how much money it will spend.

Mr Varadkar is taking on the Enterprise, Trade and Employment brief at a crucial time. That's an area Fine Gael has done well with in the recent past, but its lack of delivery on major plans like Housing Ireland and its fiscal conservatism in recent years could be cause for alarm for its new coalition partners.

The Greens will face similar scrutiny from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael as it takes over the climate action brief. The 7% average reduction in carbon emissions per year was one of the big sticking points of coalition talks, and Eamon Ryan will have to figure out how to balance his party's big concerns with the bigger parties' loyalty to farmers and businesses.

By their very nature, coalition governments are rarely easy, and Covid-19 will make this one even harder.

With the mix of views at the cabinet table, there are winners and losers on every issue and compromise is key, but differences aren't necessarily a bad thing.

In her now classic book 'Team of Rivals', Doris Kearns Goodwin showed how Abraham Lincoln was able to thrive in office after appointing a trio of candidates who ran against him to his cabinet. Together, they won the American Civil War.

The historic coalition of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael has already ended a civil war. Let's hope this team of rivals can continue to find a way forward as the country faces difficulties far greater than any that exist at the cabinet table.

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