2020 a big year for Cork politics with Micheál Martin becoming Taoiseach

2020 a big year for Cork politics with Micheál Martin becoming Taoiseach

President Higgins presents Taoiseach with Seal of Office. An Taoiseach, Micheál Martin TD and President Michael D. Higgins and (behind ) ADC to the President Col Stephen Howard at Áras an Uachtaráin.

BY any measure, 2020 was the biggest year for Cork politics in more than half a century.

When Micheál Martin received the seal of office from President Michael D. Higgins in June, he became the first Corkman since Jack Lynch in 1966 to rise to the office of Taoiseach.

And while it was a lifelong dream fulfilled, the dramatic circumstances couldn’t have been imagined even a few months beforehand.

Instead of the usual gathering of family and friends in the gallery of a packed Dáil chamber, Mr Martin was elected in the lonelier hall of the Convention Centre, with his Dáil colleagues spread out behind him. His family watched on television from home.

With a short term of just two-and-a-half years ahead of him, his response to the Covid-19 pandemic will define his tenure, not the big promises on healthcare and housing he ran for election on.

Since the summer, every decision has been made in the shadow of the virus and the Taoiseach has had to spend the bulk of his time fighting fires and handling what seems like a new political crisis every day.

With Covid cases going down and the country starting to reopen, Mr Martin was in prime position to get the country back on track from the get go.

But a series of own-goals by the government led to a shaky start for the new Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael-Green Party coalition, starting with the resignation of Barry Cowen almost immediately after being appointed Agriculture Minister.

His successor, Dara Calleary, would resign in August over the infamous Oireachtas Golf Society dinner in Clifden. That scandal would also claim Cork Senator Jerry Buttimer, of Fine Gael, who resigned as Cathaoirleach of the Seanad.

By the autumn, Covid-19 cases were rising rapidly again, forcing Mr Martin to bring the country back into lockdown after an embarrassing two-week public spat between the cabinet and the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET).

He hasn’t been without his wins, however. His government delivered a bumper July stimulus package to get the economy moving, legislated for carbon neutrality, and began a significant investment in house building, even if Covid has slowed progress on construction down.

Leaving 2020, Ireland has one of the lowest incidence rates in Europe, despite the recent spike, and with a vaccine now available, 2021 may be a much more prosperous year for the country and its new Taoiseach.

In an unprecedented power grab by a single constituency, two of Mr Martin’s Cork South-Central colleagues joined him in the higher echelons of the cabinet.

Fine Gael deputy leader Simon Coveney retained his spot as Foreign Affairs Minister, though losing the Tánaiste title, while Fianna Fáil’s Michael McGrath took over the Department of Public Expenditure.

As expected, Mr Coveney’s year was dominated by difficult negotiations on an EU-UK trade deal, but, for a while, it looked like he might have been eyeing up Brussels himself.

When EU Commissioner Phil Hogan reluctantly resigned after the aforementioned Clifden golf dinner, replacing him with Mr Coveney was seen by many as the best bet for Ireland to hold on to the coveted trade portfolio. Mr Coveney himself played coy on the issue as the government negotiated with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, but when it became clear that such a key position had been forfeited by the embarrassment caused by the Irish, his name was removed from contention and MEP Mairead McGuinness went on to become financial stability minister instead.

On the homefront, the finance portfolio was split, with Fine Gael’s Paschal Donohoe retaining the Department of Finance but ceding Public Expenditure to Mr McGrath.

That role has put the Corkman at the heart of government decision making, and his fingerprints were all over the October budget.

By most accounts, the budget was a win for the Taoiseach and the government, or at least not enough of a bust to overshadow all the other crises the country faces.

Instead of the harsh cuts seen during other downturns, Mr McGrath and Mr Donohoe treated the current recession as an aberration caused by a public health crisis and focused their spending on helping the economy survive through the current storm so it can thrive whenever the waters are clear again.

Mr McGrath’s time in the spotlight has allowed him to emerge in the public eye as the de-facto deputy leader of Fianna Fáil. With Calleary and Cowen out of the way, he’s the only Fianna Fáil heavyweight at cabinet besides Mr Martin and is now the bookies’ favourite to eventually succeed him as leader.

In February, the 2020 election revealed the shifting sands of Cork politics, even if there were few big changes.

As a whole, the Dáil underwent a major overhaul, with Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, and Fine Gael essentially tied, while some of the smaller parties also grew in numbers as the old establishment shrank.

In Cork, those shifts were, with the exception of Social Democrat Holly Cairns, only seen underneath the surface, but signified the type of change we can expect in the future.

The first political goodbye of 2020 came just a few weeks before the election when Sinn Féin stalwart Jonathan O’Brien announced that he would be standing down from electoral politics and not defending his seat.

The poll-topping TD left a huge hole for Sinn Féin to fill, but Councillor Thomas Gould, fresh off a strong showing in the recent by-election, not only kept a seat but topped the poll. That was only one high-point on a day where Sinn Féin topped the poll in three of Cork’s five constituencies in a stunning turnaround of its fortunes compared to the recent local and European elections.

The election almost gave a complete makeover to northside politics, with Solidarity’s Mick Barry the only 2016 TD returning.

Colm Burke finally won a seat for Fine Gael after the resignation of Dara Murphy just a few months beforehand, and Fianna Fáil’s Pádraig O’Sullivan, already finishing out Billy Kelleher’s term after winning a by-election, won a seat in his own right.

While Mr O’Sullivan won out, a years-long battle over the Fianna Fáil ticket on the northside finally came to a head, with city councillor Kenneth O’Flynn leaving the party to run as an independent. Neither he nor Fianna Fáil rival Tony Fitzgerald were elected in the end.

While Cork South-Central and Cork North-West both returned the same teams as 2016, the results still told an interesting story.

On the southside of the city, Sinn Féin’s Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire topped the poll, while Lorna Bogue, formerly of the Green Party, finished in a distant but solid fifth place. If the constituency ever regains a fifth seat, which population growth suggests, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will have their work cut out for them.

Despite no changes in Cork North-West, the Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil stronghold saw a real challenge from Ciarán McCarthy of the Social Democrats, with opposition voters rallying around him as the count went on. As the only Cork constituency without a Sinn Féin candidate, everyone was left wondering if something could have changed here if circumstances had been different.

The only seat flipped by a party was by the Social Democrats, with Ms Cairns knocking out Fine Gael in its Cork South-West stronghold as former Junior Minister Jim Daly opted to retire from politics and leave others to defend the seat.

She wasn’t the only one to perform an upset, with her partner, Fianna Fáil’s Christopher O’Sullivan, knocking out incumbent Fianna Fáil TD Margaret Murphy-O’Mahony after being added to the ticket as her running mate.

In Cork East, James O’Connor pulled off the same feat, taking a seat for Fianna Fáil over incumbent Kevin O’Keeffe.

In a year like 2020, a Corkman being elected Taoiseach could only have been one of the big headlines with so much else going on. And as the first year of the decade closes, we’ve been left with some serious clues about where Cork politics is heading next.

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