Mick Clifford: Election 2020 surely the last roll of the dice for comeback kid Martin

Pushing 60 he may be, but the Fianna Fáil leader has been full of energy on the campaign trail so far, writes Michael Clifford

Mick Clifford: Election 2020 surely the last roll of the dice for comeback kid Martin

Pushing 60 he may be, but the Fianna Fáil leader has been full of energy on the campaign trail so far, writes Michael Clifford

The manager asks Micheál Martin to please leave the premises. The man-who-would-be-Taoiseach moves sheepishly to the exit of Dunnes Stores in Douglas Shopping Centre. It has been pointed out to him that the retailer does not allow canvassing within its store.

This fella may soon be shaping the national economy and breaking bread with world leaders, but he’ll ply his trade no more in Dunnes Stores on this busy Saturday morning.

He won’t ply it outside the store either — that slot is taken by his running mate, man-who-would-be-finance-minister Michael McGrath.

Minutes earlier, as Martin strode at a rate of knots through the shopping centre, McGrath appears outside Dunnes, patiently distributing his literature. Martin was dressed smart-casual for the weekend run. McGrath was suited and booted like he was about to rise to his feet in Dáil Éireann. The meeting of Fianna Fáil’s head honchos was a slightly awkward affair. In 2016, McGrath topped the poll, coming in ahead of his leader.

The ejection from Dunnes doesn’t faze Martin. He keeps going, head down as he walks, raised as voters come within his orbit. He carries the air of a man who is slightly embarrassed to be interrupting innocent shoppers, but feels obliged to do so in the national interest.

He is good with people, even people who have no time for his politics. Pat O’Donoghue is pushing a buggy when he encounters the candidate and has a few choice words for him. Would he vote for Mr Martin?

“We voted Fianna Fáil all our lives, but this time I’m inclined to vote independent,” he says.

“Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have let the country down. I’m in the public service the last 23 years, and me and my wife have had enough of it, the way they’ve run the country.”

Geraldine Sutton is more amenable to the Martin charm. She appears chuffed after her brief encounter, but has he got her vote? “I haven’t thought about who I’m going to vote for yet,” she says. “I’d just have to sit down and think about it.” Then she leans forward, as if to whisper some choice gossip, and says: “But more than likely it will be him”.

By any stretch, Martin should have the cut of yesterday’s man. He has been a full-time politician for nearly 35 years. Between 1997 and 2011, he was at the core of Bertie Ahern’s administrations which also included Brian Cowen, Noel Dempsey, Dermot Ahern, and others.

In the end, they all quit, exhausted after the years of easy and illusory affluence followed by shock reality at what had happened under their watch.

Martin could have retired with them in 2011 to enjoy later middle age, cushioned with a bloated pension.

He chose to stay and rebuild the party through the post-crash shame. His first election as leader saw Fianna Fáil’s vote collapse to levels not seen since its formation in 1927. It looked as if he would be the only leader of the party never to become Taoiseach. And his position in what remained of the Soldiers of Destiny was not terribly secure.

He used the wilderness years to reinvent himself and Fianna Fáil. During the marriage equality and eighth amendment campaigns, it sometimes looked as if he was dragging the party, kicking and screaming, into modern Ireland. He attracted criticism for failure to instil discipline when TDs got bolshie. But his vindicated political instincts — coupled with the lack of an obvious replacement — provided him with the fuel to keep going.

Now, pushing 60, he moves like a comeback kid.

He is nearly 20 years older than Leo Varadkar, yet the advantage such a disparity might have ordinarily conferred on the latter doesn’t really apply.

Some of it is down to Martin’s physical condition. The years are nowhere to be seen on him. Before hitting the shopping centre, he was at the Douglas Farmer’s market picking up what he called his “provisions”. He had his bag-for-life, his empty bottle to be refilled at the juice stall. His favoured tipple is a concoction called The Leprechaun, made from apple, carrot, beetroot, and spinach.

He also bought a loaf of “medieval” bread, made from an ancient recipe. “The hillwalkers love it,” he says. On he went filling his bag-for-life, posing for selfies, doing a piece to camera for TV, his team of canvassers providing a protective cordon around him.

“He does this every Saturday,” one of them coos, referring to the shopping.

Why, one might wonder, did he do it for the cameras on this day? Was he sending a message to the soldiers that not only will there be no more eating dinners in the middle of the day, but the meat-and-two-veg are also on the way out? Or was he fishing for the green vote?

Back in the shopping centre, he runs into legendary singer, Seán Ó Sé. Poor Mr Ó Sé thought he was out for a quiet morning.

Micheal grips his hand long enough to make sure all the cameras catch it.

Further on, he encounters nine-year-old Brian Lynch, who loves history and politics. Brian is asked by one of the reporters what it takes to be Taoiseach.

“You have to be really good, and you can’t do bad decisions,” says Brian. And has Micheál Martin done any bad decisions? “No,” says Brian, and yes, he would vote for him.

The bad decisions made when Martin was in the heart of Ahern’s Cabinet present a weakness that Fine Gael in particular is intent on making hay with.

This raises the trust issue. Notwithstanding reinventions, would Martin’s party ruin the country again if handed the reins of power?

Martin has his own baggage. Much of his tenure in Cabinet was spent when the living was easy, but his stint in health left a lot to be desired. He did bring in the smoking ban, but he also gained a reputation for being a ditherer, commissioning forests of reports and sitting on his hands while the trolleys queued up. He likes to concentrate on the final years of that administration when they tried to rescue the country from the near catastrophe they had overseen.

“We did a lot of the heavy lifting (in righting the economy) in 2011-12 and they continued with our plan,” he says. “And in the last five years, we continued maintaining with Fine Gael the fiscal parameters in budgets. I believe the foundation was laid (by FF). I’d give credit where it’s due, but the fundamental issue today is down to fairness and dealing with housing and health.”

One woman outside Costa Coffee reaches for his hand as he passes. She says she admires him for keeping the country stable over the last few years and for the stance he took in the amendments. “We get a fair bit of that,” he says of her reference to his role in the confidence and supply arrangement.

He knows the election is the last roll of the dice for him. A lifetime in politics, his place in history, are finely balanced. This is the first time he is a realistic contender for Taoiseach. The electorate has to decide whether he is the ditherer or the reformer, the all-things-to-all-voters poser or a man of conviction. How would the baggage impact on him?

He can’t leave Douglas without a visit to Ray Cummins’ sports shop. Inside, he caresses a sliothar, which he says is the type used for the All-Ireland. “Has anybody got a hurley?” he asks. This could get ugly. Martin is a Nemo man, a big-ball man. Somebody produces a hurley. He takes a swing and the sliothar goes flying past the blood and bandages Cork jerseys, beyond the designer gear and helmets and lands somewhere with a crash. If that’s the only embarrassment he suffers in this campaign, he’ll be doing all right.

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