Daniel McConnell : Martin’s desperation could win out

Daniel McConnell : Martin’s desperation could win out
This is Micheál Martin's last chance to be Taoiseach. He may yet suffer the indignity of being the first leader in the history of Fianna Fáil never to assume the office. Picture: Maxwellphotography.ie

Micheál Martin is desperate, we hear.

This is his last chance to be Taoiseach. He has to make the current talks process work, or he will be gone.

If that happens, he will suffer the indignity of being the first leader in the history of Fianna Fáil never to become Taoiseach.

That has been the narrative building around the government formation talks in recent weeks as people have begun to grow impatient as to how long things are taking.

“He’s like the teenage boy waiting to get the shift as the last dance of a teenage disco comes on,” was how one of his own TDs put it to me somewhat cruelly earlier this week.

Martin is certainly not beloved of his own party following its poor showing in February’s election.

Having been tipped by some, including me, to hit between 50 and 60 seats, Martin and his troops returned with a highly disappointing 38 seats.

This was despite facing a deeply unpopular Fine Gael-led Government which itself shipped a considerable number of seats.

Martin’s lack of popularity internally is not simply limited to the bad day at the office on February 8 — it runs much deeper than that.

Many in the party blame him for the impact confidence and supply had on not just the party’s standing, but more fundamentally, its identity.

Such tension was articulated by Martin’s constituency running mate and finance spokesman Michael McGrath in an interview with this paper over Christmas.

Daniel McConnell : Martin’s desperation could win out
Michéal Martin and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar after a debate in the recent general election. Many in Fianna Fáil blame Michéal Martin for the impact confidence and supply had on not just the party’s standing, but more fundamentally, its identity.

“Obviously, not everyone was happy with the decision to extend confidence and supply in 2018. But I think that has been absolutely vindicated as the correct decision by Micheál Martin. We did it for very good reason, in the national interest, and I think even a lot of our opponents respect that fact, and we see how that plays out electorally,” he said.

However, McGrath said he found the limitations of the deal very frustrating.

“I found it very challenging here, at a personal level, because, you know, some people see you as neither being in Government nor in Opposition. So it has been awkward and difficult. There are times when you’d love to let fly at the Government, more than you feel you can, because the harder you go in, then there will be more calls as to why aren’t you pulling it down. So it has been a very tricky tightrope to walk,” he said.

“I have been at the coalface of confidence and supply. The workout of it, through four budgets and the negotiations with Michael Noonan and then Paschal Donohoe. So I will be glad to see the end of confidence and supply,” he said, wearily.

So, if I think it has served the country well, given the crisis that we have faced in Brexit, I think it was the right thing to do. But it has been very challenging, and it has not been enjoyable.

It is also not too long ago that Martin found himself out of step with a large majority of his parliamentary party over the liberalisation of abortion in 2018. Such scars have not fully healed, truth be told.

Martin’s position has come in for further scrutiny and criticism over his stance on doing business with Sinn Féin.

In the run-up to polling day, Martin repeated again and again his stance that he would not consider doing business with Sinn Féin, even though a group within his own party were more than open to the possibility.

Perhaps reeling from the scale of the reversal handed to him by the electorate on the weekend of the count, Martin did what I considered to be one of his smartest moves.

Despite his previous utterances, he opened the door to Mary Lou McDonald’s party. “Martin u-turn in face of Sinn Féin tsunami” screamed the front-page headline on the Irish Examiner on Monday, February 10.

By doing so, he was opening his options to potential coalition partners as it became clear a deal between two of the three largest groupings would be needed for a government to be formed.

A backlash from the metropolitans on his front bench, namely McGrath and Jim O’Callaghan SC of the leafy South Dublin suburbs, put an end to Martin’s gallop and the door to Sinn Féin was quickly shut again.

As a result, Martin then needed to do a deal with Fine Gael if he was to realise his dream of becoming Taoiseach.

Sensing his weakness, Fine Gael has sought to play the part of reluctant bride. Initially, they heralded their departure from government, insisting they were heading for opposition.

Only when the prospective government of change, namely Sinn Féin, and their fellow followers on the left could not muster the numbers, did Varadkar seek approval to step back up to the plate.

Several weeks of prolonged talks ultimately produced the historic joint framework document between the two old enemies.

As monumental as that was, a third wheel was needed, and thus enter the Green Party.

Talks between Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, and the Greens are now at an advanced stage, but serious questions remain about the appetite of both the Greens and Fine Gael to see the process through.

Let me start with Fine Gael.

As we reported yesterday, forces within Fine Gael are actively trying to “pull down from within” the talks aimed at forming a new government. A battle is under way within the party, with some senior colleagues fearful that another stint in government could further negatively impact the party’s popular support.

Since 2011, Fine Gael has slumped from 76 seats to just 35 now and many leading figures, including current senior ministers, are opposed to a deal with Fianna Fáil and the Greens, and are seeking to undermine it. The tensions within the party have been visible for several weeks now, as many current ministers know their time in office is coming to an end as there will not be room for them in the next government.

Varadkar publicly admitted that if Fine Gael goes into government again there is a possibility the party could win “only 20-something” seats in the next election.

That worries party activists, Varadkar said: “There’s huge worry within the party that if we go into government again that we will be a diminished force. We’re not going to get our way on everything, so it will need to have our stamp on it, if I can recommend it to our party and tell them it’s right to take this risk again.”

On top of this uncertainty, you have the Green Party determined to shoot itself in the foot and allow their best chance to extract a major prize in terms of policy agenda commitments and Cabinet seats to slip away.

The decision of Catherine Martin to essentially declare her bid to oust her leader, Eamon Ryan, has been destabilising to the talks and could yet have a more significant impact.

So, for all of his weaknesses, both perceived and actual, there is still something slightly positive to say for Martin’s position.

At a time of crisis, he wants to be in government. So, clearly, do Varadkar and Simon Coveney, even if many of their party do not. That is important.

The country will need a strong government which is ready to make difficult decisions to steer it back to less choppy waters over the next four to five years.

It would be nice to have a government that actually wants to be there. And, who knows — Martin, simply by wanting it enough, could yet defy all his critics and make it to the promised land.

More on this topic

Eamon Ryan has no interest in being Taoiseach but doesn't rule out Tánaiste roleEamon Ryan has no interest in being Taoiseach but doesn't rule out Tánaiste role

Housing issue ‘parked’ as government formation talks enters third weekHousing issue ‘parked’ as government formation talks enters third week

FG/FF coalition heralds 'dream era' for Irish left - Alan KellyFG/FF coalition heralds 'dream era' for Irish left - Alan Kelly

Government talks step up a gear as focus shifts to healthGovernment talks step up a gear as focus shifts to health