Micahel Clifford: Chastened Micheál Martin has got plenty to mull over

As the dust begins to settle on Election 2020, the headaches mount for Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin. Should he look for inspiration to the Biblical figure of Moses, delivering his party to the promised land but not making it home himself? Or should he quote Groucho Marx on how, if his principles are not to people’s liking, he can always change them.

Among the three leaders who may now determine a future government, Martin has the greatest dilemma. On Sunday, as the old order came tumbling down, he appeared to shift his red line of even talking to Sinn Féin about government formation.

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“I do listen to the people,” he said. “I hear what the people have said.

I don’t think today is the day to say definitively who we’re going in and out of government with.

And later: “The country comes first…there is an onus and an obligation on all that such a functioning government is formed after this.”

It’s all a long way from his position up until last Saturday that Sinn Féin was beyond the pale in terms of its history, its current connection with unelected figures from the past, and its policies.

Martin’s opposition to Sinn Féin went well beyond the usual hurly-burly of political sparring. He quite obviously has a deep-seated, genuine antipathy for what the party represents. That has been honed over a life in which politically and personally he has taken a great interest in the status and conflicts in the six counties.

Now, suddenly, the result of the election has prompted him to reassess what’s best for the country. Or perhaps best for his own interest.

For some time until about a fortnight ago, Micheál Martin looked a shoo-in for Taoiseach. The general consensus was that he would either govern with a raggle-taggle collection of small parties and Independents or do so in a reverse confidence and supply arrangement with Fine Gael. The opinion polls backed up such an analysis.

Right up until 10pm on Saturday when the exit poll was released, one such outcome seemed more likely than not.

Now it’s all washed away. The FF plus coalition option is not achievable. Simon Coveney was the first Fine Gael figure to rule out a reverse confidence and supply deal. To even pursue the latter would risk incurring further wrath from an electorate that appeared to reject the arrangement in the last Dáil.

The result has been a severe blow for the Fianna Fáil leader. He stayed on through the electoral devastation of the party in the 2011 general election. He got the rebuilding underway, while his former frontline colleagues in the party retreated to enjoy inflated, armour-plated pensions at a time of severe austerity.

Modernising the party was also part of his agenda. In the Equal Marriage and Eighth Amendment referendums he took a leading role, sometimes against a large body of opinion within his own organisation.

After the 2016 election he stepped forward to offer Fine Gael the confidence and supply arrangement. While the electorate on Saturday appeared to view this as a pass-the-parcel exercise between the big two parties, there is also a case to be made that he provided the basis for a government at a time when Sinn Féin ran in the opposition direction.

All of this was undertaken with one eye on the prize. Micheál Martin was determined that he would not be the first Fianna Fáil leader never to be Taoiseach. He presented the confidence and supply as evidence that he was now leading a responsible, contrite party.

And at the outset of the general election campaign he looked as if he was about to reach the promised land after nine years in the wilderness.

That route has now been narrowed. Simon Coveney was the first Fine Gaeler to declare on Sunday that a reverse confidence and supply arrangement would not be on the cards. If stalemate persists through the Spring that position may shift, but for now it implies that the only way Martin can become Taoiseach is through a coalition with the Shinners.

Can he eat his own words, re-evaluate his opinion of Sinn Féin as unclean? The only other option open to him is to do a Trevor Sargent on it. In 2007, Sargent was leader of the Green Party during an election in which he pledged his party wouldn’t go into government with Fianna Fáil.

When the numbers fell in favour of such an arrangement, Sargent felt the honourable thing to do was resign the leadership. That’s all very well for a party like the Greens whose raison d’etre is saving the planet. In a party whose raison d’etre is power that might be considered the work of a nutter.

There is a third option for Fianna Fáil, as enunciated yesterday on RTÉ Radio by Bertie Ahern. The party could go into opposition and hand Mary Lou the reins of power to do as she pleases. Such a course might be preferable to many in Fianna Fáil, but it would most likely spell the end of Martin’s tenure as leader.

And like all serious politicians, he wants desperately to be in power.

How desperate he wants it, and what price he is willing to pay, will become clear in the coming days and weeks.

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