Irish Examiner View: Micheál Martin will have to be both fair-minded and fierce

Like Jack Lynch 50 years ago, the Taoiseach has faced down a storm in his cabinet — but their similarities ought to end there
Irish Examiner View: Micheál Martin will have to be both fair-minded and fierce
Then taoiseach Jack Lynch meeting Old IRA veterans in March 1970 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first armed attack on the RIC since the 1916 Rising, between Ballingeary and Ballyvourney in Co Cork. 

Within days of Micheál Martin being elected Taoiseach, it became clear that he was not going to enjoy the honeymoon period often associated with the immediate aftermath of attaining high office. 

With the sacking of Barry Cowen, he has just had his first political divorce and, judging from the former minister’s reaction, it is not an agreeable parting.

Things started well for Martin, with each of the three coalition parties strongly endorsing the programme for government, despite fears that it would not get over the line with the Green Party. 

But, when it comes to political leadership, it is rarely the opposition without that matters, but the opposition within. No sooner had Cabinet positions been named, the infighting and backbiting started — not among the Government parties, but within FF itself. Aggrieved backbenchers expecting junior ministerial appointments started grumbling from the wings. 

Dublin TD Jim O’Callaghan felt hard done by for missing out on a senior portfolio, and subsequently turned down a junior ministry. 

The Taoiseach's failure to give a senior ministry to Dara Calleary took everyone — including Calleary — by surprise. He now succeeds Cowen as agriculture minister, but it must rankle with him that he was second choice.

Politicos with long memories will find similarities with the sacking in 1970 by Jack Lynch, the only other Taoiseach to hail from Cork, of two cabinet ministers in what became known as the Arms Crisis. 

Like Martin, Lynch had his detractors within the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party and, also like Martin, he took over during a turbulent period in Irish history. 

Protest marches by nationalists in Northern Ireland against Stormont’s discriminatory policies led to a backlash by Unionists, with homes burnt and hundreds fleeing south.

After days and weeks of dithering, Lynch sacked ministers Charles Haughey and Neil Blaney for allegedly conspiring to illegally import arms for use by northern republicans. 

Martin has also been accused of dithering on occasion, most recently when the Barry Cowen drink-driving saga emerged. But, like Lynch, he was prepared to strike when needed.

There is one major difference between the two men, though: despite his charm and affability, Lynch could be ruthless, duplicitous, and self-serving. 

Recent credible evidence unearthed by Michael Heney, former RTÉ broadcaster, suggests that, far from being dangerous mavericks, Haughey and Blaney had simply carried out government policy by arranging to send arms to nationalists in the North. 

According to Heney, Lynch knew all about the arms plot in advance, and scapegoated Haughey and Blaney for his own ends. He was also prepared to almost bankrupt the country by abolishing rates, leading to an FF landslide in 1977.

By contrast, Martin appears to be more measured and fair-minded. He was prepared to give Barry Cowen his support initially, and he managed to convince the other party leaders to do the same — no mean feat. 

Haughey would have dumped Cowen immediately. All Micheál Martin has to do now is combine the ruthlessness of Lynch and Haughey with the negotiating skills of Bertie Ahern and Albert Reynolds. 

Whether he has the capacity to do so, remains to be seen.

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