History tumbled on a sticky, showery morning as the people’s tribunes gathered to sound the death knell for the old way of doing things.
Civil War politics, long dead, was given an official burial. The members of Fine Gael, whose forebears defended the nascent free state against “wild men screaming through the keyhole”, voted to be led in government by the political descendant of those wild men. The reality of modern life has long last intervened. Politics in this state may be finally growing up.
The election of Fianna Fáil leader Micheal Martin as Taoiseach at the National Convention Centre in Dublin was a seminal moment in Irish politics. He is the first Taoiseach to be elected with the support of both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael the first as part of a rotating role for the office. And he may well be the last Fianna Fáil Taoiseach, although the jury will out on that for a few years yet.
The setting was suitably surreal. The convention centre has a capacity just shy of 2,000, but social distancing required that only every second row could be occupied and three out every four seats in each row remained unoccupied. Such were the requirements that a number of the TDs had to be placed up in the cheap seats in the balcony, while their colleagues were gifted down in the stalls.
The whole thing produced the effect of a scattered gathering. A visitor from Mars might think he had landed in some convention that was so boring most of the delegates gave it a skip.
Ceann Comhairle Sean O Fearghail got proceedings underway saying that “it has taken a long time but we have crossed the river and must elect a new Taoiseach”.
It took nearly two and a half hours to get through the main event, the election of a Taoiseach. Just before 1pm the Ceann Comhairle announced the result. Ta 93, Nil 62 and three abstentions. A round of applause greeted the declaration that Deputy Martin had been elected.
He gave a modest speech, light on rhetoric, but freighted with emotion when he turned to his family, his upbringing and the “tight-knit working-class” community from which he was sprung.
“My wife Mary has been a pillar of support and a partner for me since our days in college,” he said. He thanked their children and then struggled to keep emotion from his voice as he turned to his own family of origin.
“Every day my parents showed us the importance of supporting each other, of tough but fair competition and of the spirit of community.
“From my late father we learned not just of the great sporting achievements he saw, we learned of the characters and values of the heroes who were and remain immortal to us.
“We learned the importance of persistence, of optimism and of always understanding that Cork will soon win another double.”
Afterwards, the deputies were asked to remain in their seats until after the new Taoiseach was escorted from the auditorium. A little while later he descended the elevator to the sound of further applause before leaving the building en route to the Aras and his seal of office.
Earlier, the outgoing Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has mentioned the coming together that the occasion represented.
“I believe that Civil War politics ended a long time ago in this country and today it ends in parliament.”
He also served notice of the new dividing line in politics with a little dig at Sinn Féin.
“We all know what change means for Sinn Féin,” he said. “Sinn Féin ministers in ministerial offices and the back seats of ministerial cars.” The party was, he said, willing to get into government with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.
“But when the Green party do it it is betrayal. What a load of spin and nonsense.”
Mary Lou McDonald did speak of change in her speech, which she said the people had voted for. She told the displaced Dáil that what the people were getting was actually more of the same.
In fact, while all the focus was on the Civil War parties, it is Sinn Féin that has emerged as the big winner. The party is now the main opposition entity in the Dáil, at a time when there will be a lot to oppose. If, as Ms McDonald has claimed, the civil war parties are Tweedledum and Tweedledee, then the Sinn Féin leader must be Alice in Wonderland right now.
Meanwhile, as the body politic was cocooned in the centre, a dose of dirty reality was visible in the rain outside. A group of former staff in the Debenhams’ store, which closed down during the pandemic, were protesting at what they consider the cavalier approach of their former employer. Their plight is shocking, but unlikely to be unique in the current environment.
This is the world that awaits the new government. The pandemic has wrecked economic carnage. The virus has been suppressed, but all the experts say it will return in the coming months. Fear has displaced confidence in large sections of society. Rebuilding is going to be a mammoth task which will require action that is going to cause pain.
All of this is happening at a time when the climate continues to deteriorate and further disruption to life can be expected in the battle to arrest that decline.
It is difficult to imagine a more hostile environment in which to be facing into government. In the convention centre Micheal Martin set out his stall in how he will attempt to negotiate the dangerous straits that await him. This is his chance. He has made it to the bigtime. Now it’s up to him to perform.