Nobody told him there would be days, and then weeks, and now months, like this. When Micheal Martin fulfilled his ambition to step into the shoes of the Taoiseach on June 27 he never could have predicted the chain of controversies that would dog him through the Summer.
He was full of vim and vigour. It had taken him a long time to get there, and even if all went to plan he’d still have to pack his bags by Christmas 2022. Then there was the pandemic wreaking carnage on the nation’s health and economy. So the new Taoiseach was mad for road, psyched up to start getting things done without any distractions.
The distractions weren’t long in pulling him hither and thither. First there was the night of the long faces when the cabinet jobs were handed out. The Taoiseach had nothing for poor Dara Calleary, and poor Dara was “angry and disappointed” at not getting a job to which he felt entitled. Dark rumblings could be heard among the Fianna Fail grassroots.
Later that week, the ranks of the self-entitled swelled when the junior minister jobs were passed around. There was nothing for Cork North West deputy Michael Moynihan, who then declared he would be “a thorn in the side of the government”. Veteran Willie O’Dea looked into his heart and saw that the people of Limerick had been “insulted” at his exclusion from government. The rumblings in the grassroots grew louder.
Big Jim O’Callaghan wasn’t too happy either. He was offered a job but turned it down, apparently because he felt it was beneath him. He would provide “a strong voice outside government” instead. Already, the new Taoiseach was lining up enemies within.
Later that week, an old favourite of the grassroots had to apologise for a four-year-old drink-driving offence. Minister for Agriculture Barry Cowen said it was a “stupid mistake” to have taken a drink prior to an All Ireland in Croke Park and driven home after the match. Still, it looked like a yellow card offence and his boss could wave away that distraction.
Then the Sunday Times went and spoiled it all by revealing Mr Cowen may not have approached the garda checkpoint on that occasion in a direct manner.
Following those distractions Micheal Martin got back down to business, but there was more to come from the ranks of the self entitled. Within 10 days two separate controversies blew up.
On July 21, ahead of a cabinet meeting to decide on a “green list” of countries that could be visited, the Tanaiste indicated he didn’t have confidence in a green list system.
He said it was “wrong to send out mixed messages about international travel,” adding: “But if the travel advice for countries on the green list isn't different to advice for other countries, then we would be better off not having a green list at all.” By all accounts a row at the cabinet table followed, creating the first crack in a government that wasn’t yet a month in situ.
This was followed by a controversy over top-up payments for junior ministers. The carve-up of jobs in a three-way coalition meant that there had to be a third super junior to join the existing two. These super boys and girls are entitled to a €16,000 top-up to their €124,439 salaries as plain old junior ministers.
Naturally, at a time of living austerely, there was controversy over doling out more money to politicians. Despite this, the government voted it through on July 24. Afterwards the supers lived up to their names by pledging to hand back their respective allowances, but the damage was done. One more distraction for the new government.
Minister O’Brien explained that he wanted to “send a message” that the government's performance was “not good enough”. That day’s work must have prompted the Taoiseach to wonder whether he had any chance of making it to Christmas this year, not to mind Christmas 2022.
There followed relative calm for the longest time – over a fortnight – until the issuing of new public health guidelines earlier this week. More conflict at the cabinet table ensued, this time culminating with the Tanaiste telling the Taoiseach: “If we keep doing business like this we won’t be doing business for long.” On Thursday morning, Storm Ellen passed across the country and later that day Storm
Golfgate made landfall. Thestory broken by Aoife Moore and Paul Hosford set in motion events that led to the resignations of Dara Calleary after 37 days in office. Jerry Buttimer soon followed as Leas Cathaoirleath of the Seanad and meanwhile, the public displayed a level of anger not seen since the dark days of the last recession.
So it goes for Michael Martin in his first 55 days as Taoiseach. He has been repeatedly beset by distractions and controversies which serve to divert from his mission to lead the country into better times.
As of yet, it’s difficult to discern how much of this is down to his stewardship, the conduct of those around him, or sheer bad luck. Most likely a combination of all three, but in the round it serves to give the impression of a man still stalled in the starting blocks.