The leader of Fianna Fáil is gearing up for a challenging election
Micheál Martin enters and leaves the Dáil chamber by the same door nearly every time. It’s the door just behind the Ceann Comhairle and leads out to the corridor where the Dáil bars and restaurants are. Yes, it’s convenient – it’s just a couple of metres from his seat in the chamber. Many other TDs enter and leave by another door at the top of the chamber that leads out onto a landing and a stairs down to the main Leinster House. That landing is known as ‘The Taoiseach’s Galley’ as it is surrounded by portraits of most of the former Taoisigh. They get the honour after they have left office, and after they have left as a TD. One obvious one is missing – Brian Cowen’s. There’s a debate about whether he has even posed for it, but the space is there for it. I often wonder if Micheál Martin avoids this entrance and exit to the chamber because it would be a reminder for him that he may make history by being the first leader of Fianna Fáil not to serve as Taoiseach.
But five years since he took over at the helm of Fianna Fáil, the notion that he can be Taoiseach may in fact not be all that fanciful. In the past year, he has certainly put himself forward as the only alternative Taoiseach to Enda Kenny. It’s a bold claim, but probably one that is true. Joan Burton won’t be Taoiseach – the Labour party is going to suffer in the election, and even if she’s left in place, she simply won’t have the numbers. Gerry Adams will no doubt lead Sinn Fein to their greatest seat count in the election, but the party is up and down in the polls and still has weaknesses in many constituencies, and so he too is unlikely to have the numbers to dictate leading a Government. The rest of the parties and independent groupings won’t have the numbers either to elect a Taoiseach from within their ranks.
So Martin is the only viable alternative. Poll numbers for Fianna Fáil have been up and down – most recently they are back at their 2011 levels when the party got 20 seats. Martin and those around him argue that opinion polls aren’t the best barometer of support for Fianna Fáil – they point to the local and European elections in 2014 as showing a more realistic level of support for the party that dominated Irish politics for the last 30 years and more. But for Martin to swap seats with Enda Kenny in the next Dáil he would need to secure some 40 seats and he’d have to put a liquorice allsorts of a coalition together involving Sinn Fein, the Social Democrats, the People Before Profit Anti Austerity Alliance and many Independents. It’s a tough, though not impossible task.
One other option would be for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to come together and form a coalition. If there was an end to civil war politics and this was to happen, Martin and those around him would no doubt look for some form of rotating Taoiseach. But most observers think while the numbers may dictate such an alliance, the likelihood of it actually happening are slim. And even those who truly believe it is a possibility think that for it to happen the two parties would probably have to first replace their leaders.
Escaping the past
Micheál Martin’s biggest problem is escaping the past. He leads the party that effectively brought the country to the brink of ruin, which handed over economic sovereignty for a few years to European bureaucrats. Yes, we are five years on from that now, but for many, especially voters aged between 25 and 50 he is still a face of that – he was in the Cabinet when that decision had to be taken, he was a Minister in the years preceding it. Martin has tried to redefine Fianna Fáil around the party’s core principles. Among these is health. He has spent a lot of time on leaders questions focussing on this area and criticising current Government policy. But it has been a risky strategy. The stock response from Enda Kenny and the Government is that Martin created a monster in the HSE that is taking longer than expected to dismantle. And even when the trolley crisis comes up on a weekly basis, the Government is never slow to point out that when Martin was Health Minister (2000-2004) that his solution to overcrowding in emergency departments was ‘to order more trolleys’.
Focusing on the future
Micheál Martin’s spent the last few years rebuilding Fianna Fáil. As part of seeking forgiveness, he’s positioned the party firmly in the centre-ground of politics. To be fair, it’s a position the party has held for some time, especially under Bertie Ahern who had the capability of moving to the right or left whenever it suited. But Martin wants to paint the party as firmly in the centre – criticising the right wing austerity policies of Fine Gael and Renua Ireland for example, and highlighting that the harder-left policies of the likes of Sinn Fein and the PBP-AAA are not sustainable in his view. Where this is problematic though is that the last five years have focussed an awful lot of people (and especially the so-called floating voters) away from that centre-ground and they have either stayed more in the right or moved very much towards the left.
Martin’s selling point is that their focus is on the areas of health, education and equality – a sort of showing what the party was good at. There’s been a return to the philosophy of Seán Lemass and encouraging enterprise. He wants to reward the potential of the individual, saying there’s nothing wrong with earning wealth, being a wealth creator, and being enterprising.
Martin famously said that the party isn’t going to “promise the sun, moon and stars” to the electorate in the election, and has promised credible alternatives to what the Government is offering. A manifesto is in the offing, which should make voters understand better what those health policies are, exactly what would happen with water charges, and what a better education system would actually mean.
When Martin took over Fianna Fáil in 2011 most believed the party would be spending at least two terms in Opposition. But as leader now he has changed tack on that, or, at least, he’s going to tell the public that the party does want to be in Government again. Whether the weeks left before polling are enough time to persuade enough voters that now is the time for another stint in Government Buildings is enough won’t be clear until those votes are counted.
Martin’s pronouncements on the health service don’t just stay within the Dáil chambers or on media performances. He is known for living a very healthy lifestyle himself. Former ministerial colleagues have in the past had no problem recounting how he wanted healthier options when extended meetings took place, not happy with white bread sandwiches or plates of croissants and pastries.
There is a story about the Fianna Fáil leader and biscuits. In an interview at some point, he reportedly said he hadn’t eaten a biscuit in over 20 years. Whether it’s true or a myth he adopts a healthy lifestyle. If he joins you in the Dáil restaurant for breakfast or tea the tray will have grapefruit, brown soda bread, a banana and green tea, or a salad. Journalist colleagues often comment that they keep the head down if they see him coming, for fear of a lecture for what might be on their plate.
Martin’s first task as leader was the 2011 general election. This saw Fianna Fáil’s worst electoral performance in its history seeing a 75% decline in support levels, and the return of small, all male party in the Dáil chamber.
As captain of the ship, he managed to bring it to a halt right in front of the iceberg before it struck. His leadership style seems to be one of a captain without a first officer. There is no deputy leader after the position was abolished. Some in his party are also critical of the lack of Parliamentary Party meetings, claiming Martin steers the ship with a couple of close advisors but pays little attention to the crew.
In May 2015 when Senator Averil Power left the party she described him as a “leader without followers”. This was stinging criticism as Martin had promoted Power as the future of the party and a great hope for it to rid itself of an ‘all male, pale and stale’ image. The way he handled the situation, going on the attack, made him look less of the reformer and modern face of Fianna Fáil, and more of the ‘old guard’ the party had spent four years trying to get away from.
At the last election, Martin was only in the job a few wet weeks and no real campaign was mounted. The knocking on doors in the coming weeks will no doubt see the party win over some of the voters ‘borrowed’ by Fine Gael in 2011. But the type of leadership campaign Martin mounts up and down and across the country will be key, as will be leadership debates when he comes face to face with Enda Kenny and will have to convince people he is in fact the only alternative Taoiseach.
More about Micheál Martin
Micheál Martin has been leader of Fianna Fáil since January 2011. He has been a TD for Cork South Central since June 1989. He is 55 years old and a former secondary school teacher.
Minister for Foreign Affairs (May 2008-January 2011)
During his tenure here he was dubbed ‘Lord Martin of Hillsborough’ due to the amount of time he spent there dealing with the Northern parties and talks.
He was Minister when the Treaty of Lisbon was defeated the first time.
Micheál Martin was centrally involved in the release of Irish aid worker Sharon Commins and Ugandan colleague Hilda Kawuki who had been abducted from a compound run by the aid agency Goal in Darfur, Sudan.
Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment (September 2004-May 2008)
During his tenure in this Department, he abolished the 1987 Groceries Order legislation which prohibited the sale of groceries below cost price.
Minister for Health and Children (January 2000 – September 2004)
It was during his tenure here that Martin introduced a ban on smoking in workplaces, including pubs and restaurants in March 2004.
He also introduced the biggest overhaul in the health service in a generation, establishing the Health Service Executive. He also promised to end waiting lists once and for all.
Minister for Education and Science (June 1997 – January 2000)
Spending was increased in all areas of his tenure in the Department of Education. He introduced special needs assistants in schools.