Daniel McConnell: Micheál Martin finally Taoiseach but his big day was not without controversy

Appearing to get emotional at times when speaking of his family, he said to be elected to serve as Taoiseach of a free republic is one of
Daniel McConnell: Micheál Martin finally Taoiseach but his big day was not without controversy
Mr Martin’s contentious selection served to overshadow and sully the earlier upbeat mood surrounding his election as Taoiseach.

If Saturday was a day that began in hope, it was one which ended in confusion, anger and bitter internal recrimination.

New Taoiseach Micheál Martin’s day was going swimmingly.

His journey to the position of Taoiseach was as smooth as he could have hoped for.

In the unusual yet imposing setting of the Convention Centre, the Dáil vote to elevate Mr Martin to his new job went without a hitch.

Although Sinn Fein meekly proposed Mary Lou McDonald for the position, the effort was half-hearted at best, and everyone knew it.

In her address, while she lamented the lost opportunity of not electing a government of “change” she warned the new Government that their strangle hold on the system is no more.

“Today's marriage of convenience is borne of necessity and not ambition; it is to buy time and to keep others out and in their place.

"For the political establishment, it is their way or no way. I have to tell those people they will no longer get it all their own way; that day is over. The inescapable truth is that the future belongs to those of us who believe in change.

"The measure and mettle of the Irish people is reflected in how they have handled the Covid-19 pandemic,” she said before wishing Mr Martin well.

The other opposition parties and groupings didn’t even bother to attempt to stand a nominee.

When it came to outgoing Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, he too decided to be brief.

But rather than explore and address the needs of the country, Mr Varadkar sought fit, without a script, to tear into Ms McDonald and her party.

“Some people may think that 24.5% is a majority. Some people may think 3% or 1% is a majority. It is not. A majority is more than 50% and these three parties have that majority. They won it in the previous election and have a very strong mandate to govern and to serve over the next five years,” he said.

We all know what change means for Sinn Féin. For Sinn Féin, change means Sinn Féin Ministers in ministerial offices and Sinn Féin Ministers in the back seats of ministerial cars.

“They are willing to go into power with Fianna Fáil. They are willing to go into power with Fine Gael. They are probably willing to get into power with both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

"That is what change means to Sinn Féin, but of course when the Green Party does that, it is a betrayal. What a load of spin and nonsense,” Mr Varadkar blasted.

His comments were brisk and brutal and seemed unnecessarily tetchy for a man about to relinquish the power of his high office.

Mr Varadkar handed over power to Micheál Martin but not without one last swipe at Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald.
Mr Varadkar handed over power to Micheál Martin but not without one last swipe at Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald.

The absence of the normal grandstanding on days like this from opportunistic opposition TDs meant Mr Martin did not have to wait too long for the vote to take place in the socially distanced make-shift Dáil chamber.

And then when the vote came, in total nine independent TDs added their support to the 84 votes of the three government parties, meaning Mr Martin was elected Taoiseach by 93 votes to 63 with three abstentions.

In keeping with the pace of events, Mr Martin kept his address to under 10 minutes.

Appearing to get emotional at times when speaking of his family, he said to be elected to serve as Taoiseach of a free republic is one of the greatest honours anyone can receive.

“Most of all, I thank my family and my community. Without them, I could have achieved nothing. My wife, Mary, has been a pillar of support and a partner for me since our days in college,” he said with his voice cracking just a little.

His words all the more powerful by the fact Mary and his children were not present in the Dáil chamber as they normally would be on such a momentous occasion because of social distancing travel restrictions.

Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin speaking in the Convention Centre today. Mr Martin's family could not attend his election due to Covid-19 travel restrictions.
Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin speaking in the Convention Centre today. Mr Martin's family could not attend his election due to Covid-19 travel restrictions.

“Our children have tolerated my many absences over the years. As they have grown, studied and experienced the world, they have not just supported me but have given Mary and me the benefit of their views of the Ireland they have grown up with,” he added.

“I was blessed to be born into the home which my late parents created for me and my brothers and sisters in the heart of the close-knit working-class community which I have the enormous privilege of representing in Dáil Éireann,” he said.

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 but 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,” he quipped.

He was immediately led out of the chamber to a guard of honour from his party colleagues.

His deputy leader Dara Calleary, who was regarded by virtually everyone as a shoe-in to Cabinet, escorted him to his car.

All was going to plan, it seemed.

Mr Martin went to Áras an Uachtarain and received his seal of office from President Michael D Higgins and immediately returned to Government Buildings to begin the process of appointing his Cabinet.

President Michael D Higgins and Micheál Martin in Áras an Uachtarain on the day the Fianna Fáil leader became Taoiseach.
President Michael D Higgins and Micheál Martin in Áras an Uachtarain on the day the Fianna Fáil leader became Taoiseach.

The first to be seen crossing over from Leinster House was Michael McGrath, who was a dead cert to become the Public Expenditure Minister.

Next to be spotted going over was Darragh O’Brien, then Barry Cowen,

Stephen Donnelly and then Norma Foley, the first-time TD from Kerry.

Only then was Calleary spotted heading across. It was not a good sign for a man who has slogged his guts out for his party since 2011.

A former junior finance minister, Calleary’s party credentials are not in question.

His father Sean Calleary also served as a junior minister across three departments between 1979 and 1992.

With the details of the cabinet appointments leaking by the minute, word came of Mr Donnelly’s appointment as health minister.

This did not go down well among many Fianna Fáil TDs around Leinster House. Donnelly is only with the party since 2017 having previously served as an independent and then as a co-leader of the Social Democrats.

Then word came that Calleary was being offered the “high-chair” seat of Chief Whip.

It is fair to say Mr Martin caused “widespread shock” and anger in his own party at his decision to exclude his own deputy leader Dara Calleary from his list of full Cabinet ministers.

Mr Calleary’s confirmation as Government Chief Whip, will allow him to sit at Cabinet, but he will not have a portfolio.

It had widely speculated that Mr Calleary would be one of Mr Martin’s first picks to be in Cabinet.

Numerous Fianna Fáil TDs expressed their shock at the decision.

“That will not go down well. Dara is a party man through and through and has worked his backside off since 2011. This is not a good move at all,” said one TD.

Several others have hit out at the decision to appoint Stephen Donnelly to a full ministry in the health portfolio, ahead of Mr Calleary.

“What the F***, he puts Donnelly into Health and he only a blow in since 2017. Calleary has in fairness to him done more than enough to merit being in Cabinet,” said another TD.

Also overlooked and clearly disappointed were Thomas Byrne, Jim O’Callaghan, Anne Rabbitte, Jack Chambers and Mary Butler.

Mr Martin’s contentious selection served to overshadow and sully the earlier upbeat mood surrounding his election as Taoiseach.

While he was settling into the Taoiseach’s office, Mr Varadkar was getting used to life as Tánaiste and had the unenviable task of having to relieve no fewer than eight of his ministers of their posts.

The high-profile casualties included Richard Bruton, Eoghan Murphy, Josepha Madigan, Joe McHugh, Michael Ring, Paul Kehoe, Charlie Flanagan and Michael Creed.

While some if not most had expected it, word is Mr Ring was seen in tears as he left the room.

Mr Varadkar remarked when he was left with his reduced cabinet ranks that the room “feels half empty”.

Whatever about the personal disappointments, there were also stinging criticisms from the Opposition as to the absence of a Cabinet minister from any county along the western seaboard from Donegal to Limerick.

A host of TDs including Marian Harkin and Michael Fitzmaurice focused on this imbalance highlighting that no fewer than eight ministers now around the Cabinet table are from Dublin.

But for all the grumbling and potential problems Mr Martin has created for himself, he has finally made it to the promised land of the Taoiseach’s office.

He has less than two and a half years to make his mark in the teeth of a pandemic and a severe economic recession before he relinquishes the office back to Mr Varadkar.

The country needs him to succeed.

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