Can slow and steady Micheál Martin win the race and become Cork's second-ever Taoiseach?

Can slow and steady Micheál Martin win the race and become Cork's second-ever Taoiseach?
Fianna Fáil General Election 2020. Pictured is Fianna Fail Party Leader Micheál Martin with other party members as he speaks at the launch of the Fianna Fail manifesto in Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin today. Photo:Leah Farrell/ RollingNews.ie

David Linnane analyses the prospect of Micheál Martin becoming Taoiseach and his record as a TD and Minister under the much-maligned Fianna Fáil-led Government that presided over the country during the economic crash

IF Micheál Martin becomes Taoiseach after this weekend’s election, it will go down as one of the greatest comebacks in Irish political history.

Less than 10 years ago, he took over Fianna Fáil as it faced into its worst election ever, with the public eager to punish a Government that had mismanaged the country to the point of bankruptcy.

At the time, many people wrote off Fianna Fáil altogether, predicting a demise or retreat into obscurity after it lost all but 20 seats.

Others thought that Mr Martin would serve as an interim leader while a new generation emerged to take over the party.

The idea that someone tainted by 14 years in Cabinet under Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen could rebuild the party and become Taoiseach seemed like a foolish dream.

But having defied the odds, Mr Martin is now at a make-or-break moment for his long political career, heading into a weekend where he could emerge as Taoiseach or see his leadership coming to an end as the only Fianna Fáil chief to never have held the role.

Though it was more than half his life ago, Irish politics wasn’t all that different when he first ran for election to the Dáil during the fractured political days of the late 1980s.

With Charlie Haughey and Garrett Fitzgerald still dominating Irish politics, the fledgeling Cork City councillor filled out a four-candidate ticket in 1987 and helped his party elect two TDs, though he wasn’t one of them.

However, 1989 was a much bigger year for him. Not only did he marry his wife, Mary, he almost doubled his first-preference vote in a snap general election and gained the seat that he has now held for 30 years.

Brian Cowen has a word with his successor Micheál Martin.
Brian Cowen has a word with his successor Micheál Martin.

Like most TDs, his first few years were unremarkable, though a stint as Lord Mayor of Cork City in 1992 — back when someone could be both a TD and a councillor — broke up the monotony of the backbenches.

He didn’t have to wait long before breaking through the ranks, though, joining Bertie Ahern’s first front bench and becoming education ministerwhen Fianna Fáil took back power in 1997.

As leader of Fianna Fáil in the last decade or so, the 14 years spent at the Cabinet table before that have been both a blessing and a curse.

While his longevity in politics and his experience as a minister across a wide range of departments has been an asset to him in the Dáil and in the field, his rivals are quick to remind people that he sat at the top table of a Government that brought the country to its knees.

But that line of attack has only partially worked.

Though the Fianna Fáil party is nowhere near the strength it was before the 2011 washout, its recovery has been considerable and it could be the largest party in the Dáil again after this weekend — an honour it has already reclaimed at local government level in 2014.

The recovery must not be overstated, however.

While Fianna Fáil has built up its share of the vote, the combined vote for Mr Martin’s party and Fine Gael dropped below 50% for the first time in 2016.

The latest polls suggest that little has changed since then, with about as many people backing alternative parties as those who back the traditional leaders of Government.

Clearly, not all is forgiven.

Fianna Fáil’s dominance over Fine Gael in the latest polls is only a recent trend too, with the long-term trends seeing Fine Gael in front place for several years.

If Mr Martin is to lead, he will be doing so in a very complicated Dáil where compromise will be key — and his ministerial experience tells us how that might go.

Mr Martin has a reputation for taking his time when coming to any decision, often coming across as someone who would rather commission reports than take action.

However, when he has reached an idea, he has shown himself to be skilled and stubborn enough to make it a reality. The signature policy he and his party are most eager to bring up is the smoking ban, which he introduced in 2004.

Given the forces at play, it’s impressive that he managed to push such a radical intervention in public health through in just over a year after announcing it.

He had done his research, with evidence of the carcinogenic effect of second-hand smoke and a research trip to New York, where a ban was already in place.

And despite lobby groups from all sides, he convinced the Government to accept his proposal without watering it down, finding allies in hospitality workers’ unions and other political parties, and made Ireland the first country in the world to ban smoking in indoor public spaces.

A few years later he faced another challenge — one that is strikingly relevant to the upcoming Brexit negotiations that the next Taoiseach will face — when the public voted down the Lisbon Treaty.

As foreign affairs minister, he was charged with solving this difficult problem in such a way that could satisfy both Brussels and the Irish public.

Provision 200519Micheal Martin and Simon Coveney at Euro Election South at Nemo, CorkPic Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Provision 200519Micheal Martin and Simon Coveney at Euro Election South at Nemo, CorkPic Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

True to type, he issued a report — a survey to find out the biggest problems the Irish people had with the treaty.

Armed with his research, he renegotiated the terms of the treaty with Brussels, with Ireland able to opt out of the areas it was most concerned about.

The subsequent referendum on the amended treaty passed by a majority of two to one.

Those two achievements illustrate Mr Martin’s skills quite well.

He’s no political mastermind — at least not in any Machiavellian way — instead relying more on patience and targeted pressure than political tricks to get things done.

His approach is rarely radical, and that’s allowed him to get radical things done.

That’s been evident in his leadership of Fianna Fáil too.

The party’s recovery wasn’t pulled off using some big trick or promise — it was done through hard work.

Instead, Mr Martin stood before the people and took responsibility for the party’s faults in Government, then immediately began touring the country to start rebuilding, meeting members, and knocking on doors so he could reshape the party in a way that suited them.

That process has been slow, steady, and stable — rather than rapid swings that would indicate a shallow support — with growth in the 2014, 2016, and 2019 elections bringing the party to where it stands today.

He’s also evolved the party’s platform over time, reshaping it in a more centre-left, big Government image that both fits well with his own personal beliefs while also offering more of an alternative to a markedly centre-right incarnation of Fine Gael.

And that brings us back to the late 1980s, when Mr Martin cut his teeth.

From 1987 to 1989, Fianna Fáil was able to govern through a difficult economic period by relying on the Tallaght Strategy, through which Fine Gael would support the minority Government on key votes.

Mr Martin took a similar approach in 2016, facilitating a minority Fine Gael Government, though unlike Fine Gael leader Alan Dukes in 1987, he demanded policy concessions in return.

The move allowed Fine Gael to govern in a fractured Dáil at a crucial time of economic recovery — made all the more crucial by Brexit — while Mr Martin patiently played the long game and tried to portray Fianna Fáil as a party that was responsible and ready for Government.

In 1989 — when Mr Martin first entered the Dáil — the Tallaght Strategy came to an end and none of the parties involved reaped any benefits. It also hastened Mr Dukes’ departure from the frontbench.

Now we only have a few more days to wait and see if Mr Martin’s modern version of this strategy pays off, and if his patient approach to politics can finally bring him to that top seat of the Cabinet table.

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