As Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin faces into a critical few months for his party and his status in opposition, he tells Political Correspondentabout his plans
For some, Micheál Martin is considered a Taoiseach-in-waiting while others see him as a sore reminder of the economic damage left behind by Fianna Fáil during the financial crash.
After leading the party since 2011, Mr Martin and Fianna Fáil now enter a critical period in the months ahead where they could either seize power or once again be stuck in the doldrums, on the opposition benches.
Mr Martin’s next political move is crucial. But Brexit has slowed the party’s march. The chaos of Brexit has contained the usual battle of government and opposition politics, but with Britain now poised for a snap general election and Budget 2020 looming, there is growing pressure on Fianna Fáil to pull the plug on the coalition.
As their pre-Dáil think-in kicks off in Gorey, Co Wexford, today, Mr Martin told the Irish Examiner why there is no window this year for a snap election in Ireland and why his party will not take advantage of the Brexit brinkmanship being pursued by Britain.
“I don’t believe there should be a general election this side of Christmas, even if there is an [Brexit] extension.”
This is even if Boris Johnson gets his wish for a general election in Britain, adds Mr Martin.
“We need clarity around Brexit, a resolution and a trajectory towards a proper resolution. The threat of a no-deal is still there and it has stood Ireland well that there has been stability, coherence and consensus around Brexit. This is in sharp contrast to the political mayhem in the British parliament.”
Notwithstanding the Cork South Central TD’s hesitancy about walking away from the Confidence and Supply agreement whereby Fianna Fáil support the Fine Gael-led coalition, Mr Martin insists his party is no “eunuch” and will not be handing the Government a blank cheque for Budget 2020.
“We will not. It is not a no-matter-what scenario, we are entering the budget in good faith. Brexit is a huge threat to the country. Most people I meet on the streets accept and agree with the position we took last Christmas,” he said, referring to a pledge to support the coalition until Brexit is resolved.
Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe has a budget package of €2.8bn extra this year. Much of this is already consumed by pay rises, infrastructure and the broadband project and only €700m is available for new spending or tax cuts. It is not much to fight over for the government and Fianna Fáil, in what is potentially a pre-election budget.
So, are there any ‘red lines’ for Fianna Fáil if their hands are tied supporting the Government and next month’s budget?
“Of course there are,” responds Mr Martin. He says Fianna Fáil wants to see more transparency around health spending and adequate funding for services such as home help, nursing home supports, disability as well as speech and language facilities.
“The leverage is if we are not happy then we don’t support the budget, we don’t facilitate the budget. We negotiate in good faith. There never has been a blank cheque,” he insists.
Under Confidence and Supply, budgets must be split on a 2:1 ratio between spending on services and tax cuts. Mr Martin insists, indifferent of Brexit, that services must get resources next year even if this means Fine Gael abandoning promised tax cuts for workers. Mr Martin backs calls for the brakes should be put on tax cuts at a time when the economy could take a hit from Brexit.
“I don’t think we can [afford them]. First of all, all of the economic analysis from the ESRI, to the Central Bank, to IFAC, to the independent parliamentary budget office now is that the economy doesn’t require that stimulus right now, but that we need to be cautious in this budget.
“That is our position. To be cautious, we agree with them. Because Brexit creates uncertainty. That’s why the priority has to be on services, in health, housing. And the third area is climate change.
“Our view is that the overarching priority has to be that the services have enough to get by in 2020 notwithstanding Brexit,” he argues.
For the main opposition party, housing and health are priorities for the budget.
Another priority is climate action. Mr Martin says he wants more resources for biodiversity services and the start of a 10-year plan to help fund these by increasing carbon taxation.
“We should start [the carbon tax increases] in this budget,” he says. But he is reluctant to commit to a specific amount that people should pay beyond the current level of €20 for every tonne of carbon.
However, he concedes the increase could be somewhere around €5 and more over 10 years.
“I will be looking for specific figures in the budget around agencies that protect biodiversity, including the Wildlife Service, BirdWatch Ireland, the Wildlife Trust. Let’s accelerate the building of greenways, cycleways, pedestrian ways.
“It hasn’t been done for the last nine years. Fine Gael have failed disastrously on climate change, took their eye off the ball and belatedly announced plans. You must put firepower and resources behind the plans, the only way to do that is a ringfenced fund,” says Mr Martin.
Fine Gael argue otherwise and point to the Government’s recently launched climate action plan. Carbon tax increases were shelved for last year’s budget. Doing so again this time, even with Brexit, could see a public backlash, especially after huge shift to the Greens in the recent local elections.
Mr Martin also wants the Coalition to immediately implement a nationwide ban on smoky coal. The former health minister, who introduced the workplace smoking ban-dismisses Government concern that this could lead to a court challenge from fuel providers.
“Just do it,” he quips.
“Enniscorthy has become so bad it is known as the New Delhi of Ireland,” he adds, referring to the Wexford town’s air quality.
Another topic to feature at Fianna Fáil’s think-in will be the cost of living, including insurance prices for businesses and high rents for young people.
For Mr Martin, the coming months could provide his last chance to be taoiseach. The Fianna Fáil leader now has potentially just one shot to challenge Taoiseach Leo Varadkar when an election here is called. So why would he make a better Taoiseach?
“I want to be Taoiseach. I don’t want to compare myself directly to another. People will do that. I say I can get a lot more done.
“They [Fine Gael] haven’t delivered on policy, on substance. We would, under my leadership, deliver a lot more on housing, on health and climate change and infrastructure. And it is not just about me but about the team we would bring forward.”