MICHAEL CLIFFORD: Times a changin’ for Micheál Martin but how much remains to be seen

Fianna Fáil candidate for Dublin Central Mary Fitzpatrick and party leader Micheál Martin .Pic: Gareth Chaney Collins

Micheál Martin has gone from obscurity to centre stage of the election campaign, what it means for the ballot box remains to be seen, writes Michael Clifford            

LESS than a month ago, Micheál Martin was looking like he’d just stepped out of a Bob Dylan song. He had the cut of somebody who was on his own, with no direction home, lapsing into a complete unknown, like a rolling stone. To all intents and purposes, his election was heading for Desolation Row.

No more. In a campaign that has struggled to catch fire, Martin is holding his own among the main party leaders:

  • So far, Enda Kenny has not been able to extract himself from the bubble wrap in which his handlers have tied him;
  • Joan Burton appears to be suffering from an energy deficit. Her party’s abysmal showing in the polls required her to take the campaign by the scruff of the neck, but she has not been up to the task;
  • Gerry Adams has retreated into the comfort of his party’s base.

Alone among them, Martin can be pleased with how the campaign has gone so far. He has come a long way in a few short weeks. In the sober depths of January, the consensus was that he was going nowhere fast. Fianna Fáil was beset by rumours of discontent among the officer class. Some among them were making eyes at Sinn Féin, others were looking into their own hearts and seeing the stirrings of leadership material.

Times a changin’ for Micheál Martin but how much remains to be seen

The party itself looked like it would be caught between keeping the recovery going and a relatively radical opposition crying out for more fairness. Worst of all, the polls were suggesting that Martin was caught in a groove, not far above where he had landed in the wake of the 2011 election.

Since then, luck and the Corkman’s canvassing talent have intervened. He is a natural campaigner who has discarded the sackcloth and ashes that he wore in the aftermath of his party’s disastrous stewardship of the economy. He has benefited from the short memory that bedevils politics. This is a man who was at the cabinet table for the full term of Bertie Ahern’s 14 years in power — through the years of illusory wealth and bling, right into the disastrous denouement.

That past is now a different country among large swathes of the electorate. The outgoing Government is so unpopular in some quarters that Martin can come across as somebody who entered public life five years ago. Dispatches from the doorstep speak of a campaigner of boundless energy, in a field where the other three leaders are beginning to wear their years.

His performance in the first leaders’ debate was assured and confident, while those around him floundered to a greater or lesser degree. But more than anything he has been a lucky general so far.

Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and to some extent Labour, are now fishing in the same pool — a pool that is shallow compared to the days of the two-and-a-half party system. The message from the outgoing government parties has been that it is incumbent on the electorate to keep the recovefry going. The conveyance of that message has often come across as a lecture rather than an effort to persuade. Little provision is made for the reality that the recovery is still extremely shy. Telling people in this environment that they have no choice but to do as they’re told has been a miscalculation.

Further luck is accruing to Martin through the handling of his main rival, Enda Kenny. The Taoiseach does have campaigning attributes but these days it can be difficult to unearth them. Such is the terror harboured by his advisors about the potential for a cock-up from Kenny that he has been surgically removed from his natural disposition.

Martin has benefited as a result, as he leaps around the country attempting to woo back the lost tribe of Fianna Fáil voters who were borrowed by Phil Hogan in 2011.

Compounding Fine Gael’s sluggish campaign has been the failure of the party’s big beasts, such as Leo Varadkar and the Simons Coveney and Harris, to take up the slack left by Kenny.

[timgcap=Leo Varadkar]LeoVaradkarMedia_large.jpg[/timg]

Despite Martin’s flying start though, the polls remain stubborn. Perhaps the disillusionment is such that it doesn’t matter how well Martin might be coming across. The only other alternative is that there is a silent Fianna Fáil voter out there, still unwilling to admit to having bad thoughts of returning to the devil they know.

As things stand, the real battle Martin is engaged in now is attempting to maximise the number of seats with which to bargain with Enda Kenny when they retreat into conclave after the election.

Nine days of campaigning remain, and manys the election that was decided in the last week. But for Martin, the times they certainly have a-changed in a few short weeks.

By how much still remains to be seen.

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