Clock is ticking down on Martin’s bid for top job of taoiseach

ALISON O'CONNOR: Clock is ticking down on Martin’s bid for top job of taoiseach
Miss Ireland Aoife O’Sullivan and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin at the start of the Great Wild Atlantic Marathon Walk in Courtmacsherry in aid of the Courtmacsherry Lifeboat. Picture: Martin Walsh.

Micheál Martin celebrated his birthday recently. It was one of those birthdays that usually gives pause for thought, the one before the one with a zero.

After turning 59 a few weeks ago the Fianna Fáil leader will be celebrating a very significant milestone next August.

The man who seems to be waiting an eternity to land the top job wouldn’t be human if the prospect of hitting 60 doesn’t in some way spur on his ambition.

Ironically enough Micheál Martin’s star sign — if you’re into that sort of thing — is Leo.

But reading a horoscope is frankly the last thing you’d imagine the Corkman doing in order to ascertain what the near future holds. At this point in time he is entitled to feel he’s done very well in taking charge of his own, and his party’s, destiny.

Between now though, and that landmark birthday next August, he will finally know whether his political career is to include a stint as taoiseach.

As it happens Enda Kenny was weeks away from turning 60 when he became taoiseach in 2011, so both he and Micheál Martin are considerably older than the incumbent Leo Varadkar who only turned 40 earlier this year.

This time two years ago we were looking at Leo, two decades younger than his predecessor, and his main political opponent, starting out as taoiseach.

He appeared to represent a new political generation in terms of youth, attitude and not being held slave to doing things the same way just because that is how they were always done. His popularity soared.

That was never going to be sustainable and the painful thing for a politicians reaching such heights is that the only way forward is almost always down.

But in a relatively short period of time Leo’s gloss is starting to look considerably more matt, and there are questions surrounding his appeal more generally.

It’s not that Micheál Martin hasn’t his own appeal problems. After all this is the man who played a key role in those infamous Fianna Fáil governments.

After the economic crash he was leading a party that could only be described as toxic. But he has shown patience, tenacity and a considerable degree of that well known Fianna Fáil trait of brazening it out until people’s memories of events have begun to dim.

It’s too soon to know how things will pan out but it is becoming easier to see him in the top job.

But this raises the question of whether Leo is really that much of a one-trick pony?

Surely there is more left in his political tank? The last six months or so have not been at all good for him or his party and key to that has been the Taoiseach’s judgment.

Leo Varadkar is a very different politician but he has shown that he can, at times, be a very good one.

In Fianna Fáil they are almost rubbing their hands with glee as they tell you — after visiting various parts of the country during the summer break — that Leo’s stock is well down, even among Fine Gael supporters. They add that Simon (Coveney) is doing well on Brexit and Paschal (Donohoe) is an awfully nice fella and doing his best. But Leo? Well they’re more than happy to tell you he was always going to be brought back down to earth.

Then there are the judgments on Eoghan (Murphy) and Simon (Harris) in their respective portfolios of housing and health.

These two areas which Fine Gael have found so intractable will provide rich fodder for Fianna Fáil in a general election campaign.

Much of what the Fianna Fáilers feel is encapsulated in that remark the Taoiseach made in the Dáil in July likening Micheál Martin to “those parish priests who preaches from the altar telling us to avoid sin while secretly going behind the altar and engaging in any amount of sin himself”.

What a swift intake of breath that one caused, on all benches in the Dáil chamber, and to the wider audience of all political hues outside of Leinster House. It was easy, or so it seemed, to see what the Taoiseach was at — trying to make his opposite number seem like someone of an older generation who presented as a Holy Mary, but all the while was well capable of wrongdoing.

It harked back to Fianna Fáil in government, with Micheál Martin as a cabinet member, and the “sins” commited back then. But the attempted jibe was an epic fail with absurd,non intended insinuations, and pointed, once again, to Leo’s judgment. The incident lingered in the political mind over the summer break.

When the Fine Gael parliamentary party elected Leo Varadkar as leader they were more than aware of his propensity to have these sort of lapses. However they also felt his “rock star quality” where he appealed to voters beyond Fine Gael, and where people connected with him in a way that transcended politics, more than made up for these verbal misfirings.

His campaign to get elected was also very impressive.

But now they’re worried. They also know that in some ways it can matter less who is leading a party that has been in power for so long. People, at this point in an election cycle, often just want change.

It’s funny how, in contrast, the Fianna Fáil leader has grown, apparently fungus like, rather than in popularity terms, on his parliamentary party through his single mindedness and refusal to take crap from the consistent few of them who know nothing other than to show discontentment.

But the majority of them also know that when it comes to the upcoming general election their man should serve them very well because he is a assured debater and communicates in a manner that people understand.

Leo, on the other hand, is an unknown quantity as leader in this pressure cooker campaign atmosphere. On the whole he has handled the situation with the UK leaving the EU well so far, but as we’ve seen, Brexit contagion is a genuine concern.

Micheál Martin can certainly deliver familiarity and an air of competence and intelligence that will appeal to people at this time of great uncertainty.

But how will he hold up to the constant reminders of his role in our economic downfall or the jibes that he needs a committee to make a decision for him?

Fine Gael will focus efforts on portraying him as yesterday’s man, whereas their young man represents the future.

The general election campaign will have a strong presidential feel with the individual performances of the two leaders against each other being pivotal.

The jostling between these two — who, through the confidence and supply arrangement, have really gotten the measure of each other — will make for very interesting viewing.

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