Gary Murphy: A ‘soldier’ for decades, is it Martin’s destiny to finally be Taoiseach?

The Fianna Fáil leader became a TD in 1989 and has had four ministries, but the role he covets might elude him unless he can convince he is for change, writes Gary Murphy.

Gary Murphy: A ‘soldier’ for decades, is it Martin’s destiny to finally be Taoiseach?

The Fianna Fáil leader became a TD in 1989 and has had four ministries, but the role he covets might elude him unless he can convince he is for change, writes Gary Murphy.

Change has been the dominant motif of the election campaign, but Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin, has struggled to portray himself as the agent of that change.

The confidence-and-supply agreement with Fine Gael over the last four years has made him Schrödinger’s politician: both in and out of government.

At the calling of the election, the battle lines between Fine Gael’s economic competency and Fianna Fáil’s social solidarity seemed set to be the dominant narrative.

The electorate, however, has decided it wants change. It’s not quite sure what type of change.

Doubts remain as to whether the Sinn Féin surge will manifest itself at the ballot box.

Fine Gael is unable to break out of its core vote of just over 20% and has lost all the voters who had been giving them the benefit of the doubt.

The expected Green advance has not materialised.

As the campaign enters its frantic final days, the challenge for Martin is to persuade enough of the undecideds to give their vote to Fianna Fáil and put him in a position to form a government with, as he describes it, like-minded parties of the centre left.

Martin’s difficulties were summed up in his setpiece sit-down interview with RTÉ’s Bryan Dobson last Friday night.

His message was that people want a change of government and that Fianna Fáil is the only party which could lead that alternative.

The problem was he then spent considerable time apologising for his party’s role in the economic crash of 2008.

It is difficult to pull off the trick of being awash with new ideas when continuously being pressed about the past.

Martin then struggled to explain the party’s position on the amount of houses it would build if returned to office.

The nadir was when he blamed people in head office for signing him up to a National Women’s Council of Ireland pledge to implement an “emergency rent freeze” that he now says is unconstitutional. (This is based on that perennial block to doing anything: legal advice.)

Martin’s attempt to be seen as the agent of change also ran aground when he uttered the line, “I know about these things, because I’ve been a minister” in relation to his work on the Lisbon treaty and devolution in Northern Ireland, having been in government when the Good Friday Agreement was negotiated, in 1998.

His record on the latter is admirable. On the former, it’s far more questionable, as he was the minister for foreign affairs in 2008, when the Lisbon treaty referendum was lost, amidst accusations of government complacency.

So just what is the record of the man who would be Taoiseach?

A TD since 1989, Martin was a member of Bertie Ahern’s three governments, elected in 1997, 2002, and 2007.

When Brian Cowen succeeded Ahern, Martin became one of his senior lieutenants, before their relationship soured after the troika’s arrival to Ireland’s shores in late 2010.

To his critics, Martin is indecisive and unsure; a minister beloved of commissioning reports.

While he has dismissed this as a political jibe, it came back to haunt him when he told Dobson that his solution to the pension age (which has been a surprising issue on the campaign trail) was to establish a pensions commission.

His supporters point, instead, to a politician of consummate courage and they reference the smoking ban of 2004, brought in despite the implacable hostility of the vintners, a group long-associated with Fianna Fáil,and despite many sceptics within the party itself.

This was a genuine feat of political leadership and for which he deserves much credit.

Martin’s first ministerial appointment came in education, in 1997, where he was helped by a buoyant economy.

It was long seen as a department for teachers, and Martin invested significantly in early childhood education and disadvantage.

At third-level, he introduced a programme for research that transformed the sector.

Things were far more difficult for him in health.

Appointed to the department in January 2000, he oversaw the first overhaul of the health system in a generation, by abolishing the health boards and creating the Health Service Executive.

He has rejected criticisms of the structure of the HSE by saying that the current bureaucratic behemoth is not the one he created in 2004.

Caught up by the excitement of the 2002 general election and Fianna Fáil’s efforts at securing an overall majority, he ludicrously promised to abolish hospital waiting lists within two years.

He was also at the helm during the €150m fiasco of the botched PPARS computerised staff management system.

One of the main criticisms of the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report was the reliance on consultants in the development of the system.

Those consultants were paid €57m, while the State was left with a system that did not work.

Martin rather serenely waltzed through the departments of enterprise, trade and employment, and foreign affairs, but it was in the latter that he made the crucial decision to challenge Brian Cowen for the leadership of Fianna Fáil in January 2011.

This has shaped the last decade of his political life.

It was a courageous move, done in the sure knowledge that Fianna Fáil was in for the mother and father of all hidings from the public in the looming election and when many of the “men of destiny” with whom Martin had soldiered over the previous 13 years couldn’t wait to get off the electoral pitch.

Although he initially defended the troika bailout deal, Martin eventually decried the coming of the IMF to Ireland.

That political courage was also on show in Martin’s reaction to the Mahon Tribunal’s findings against Bertie Ahern in March 2012.

He proposed to expel the former taoiseach from the party for “conduct unbecoming a member of Fianna Fáil”, in the light of the tribunal’s rejection of Ahern’s evidence.

This decision was taken when Martin led just 20 TDs in the Dáil and presided over a party that had received only 17% of the vote in the general election a year earlier.

Neither of these two decisions, which shaped Martin’s early leadership of Fianna Fáil, was made for political expediency.

Both were made for the good of the party and both took on Fianna Fáil royalty. Most importantly of all, both were made on the weight of evidence.

Martin had come to the conclusion that if Cowen stayed on, the very future of Fianna Fáil was at stake.

On Ahern, the evidence clearly showed that Fianna Fáil had to cut all its ties with its former leader, if it was to present itself to the electorate as a party with a future.

As leader, Martin also showed courage with his unexpected declaration, two years ago, that not only would he vote to repeal the eighth amendment, but he would also support the proposal to legalise abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

Martin is rightly proud of Fianna Fáil’s history and roots. His political heroes are Seán Lemass and Donagh O’Malley.

Free secondary education is the Fianna Fáil policy he is most proud of.

It accords with his view that it is the role of the State to give every child the opportunity to realise their potential.

He has bemoaned the peril of ideological inflexibility, and has stated that remaining committed to the same programme, as realities change, is not to be admired.

He views this as Fianna Fáil’s greatest strength.

It is what spurred his own abandonment of the Eighth Amendment. (He was influenced by the deliberations of both the Citizens’ Assembly and the committee on the Eighth Amendment.)

While Fianna Fáil’s critics have long accused them of being opportunistic political hucksters, willing to abandon any principle for political expediency, this core idea of being responsive to the public was the very reason why the party was founded.

It is these circumstances that have led Martin to support confidence-and-supply and the Government’s position on Brexit, notwithstanding his view, on the campaign trail, that Fine Gael is playing politics with this existentialist threat to the prosperity of the State.

Martin knows that he has done the State some significant service over the last four years, though he has got little political credit for it from the ideological purists.

Micheál Martin fought the 2011 election in the direst of circumstances.

Leader only a few weeks, he saved Fianna Fáil in that campaign and brought it from the edge of extinction to the brink of power in 2016.

He now stands on the cusp of the office he has desperately craved since he first entered public life.

While he may not fully convince as the agent of change the voters are demanding, his integrity could well persuade enough of them to make him Taoiseach.

Gary Murphy is professor of politics at Dublin City University

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