Saturday 22 October 2016

2016 Ones to watch: Michael McGrath is ready for a changing of the guard

Michael McGrath, Politician

Graham Clifford

Published 03/01/2016 | 02:30

Important year: Michael McGrath
Important year: Michael McGrath

With his party languishing on 17pc in the polls and having issued a firm pre-election commitment not to go into coalition with Fine Gael or Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil leader Micheàl Martin appears to be preparing the soldiers of destiny for another five-year stint in opposition.

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Political observers believe the former foreign affairs, health and education minister is approaching the end of the line, and that the plan is for him to lead Fianna Fáil into the next election before bowing out gracefully.

By Easter, when the country stops to remember the leaders behind the foundation of the Republic, Fianna Fáil may well be preparing to unveil its own leader for the future.

And the name on most lips, inside and outside of the party, is Michael McGrath.

The party's spokesman on finance happens to be a constituency colleague of his party leader in Cork South-Central and when the issue of becoming a future Fianna Fáil leader has risen its head in the past, Deputy McGrath has never stated a reluctance to serve.

When news of internal dissatisfaction with Martin was reported in August 2013, the prospect of a leadership challenge from McGrath was mooted.

While the 39-year-old denied claims that there was an internal revolt, he said he "would not rule out" running for the leadership when an opening presents itself.

"When a vacancy does arise [as leader of Fianna Fáil], I will assess the situation then, as will many others in the party," said the father-of-five.

The waters were tested - the result was lukewarm. Any new potential leader would have to patiently bide his or her time.

Highly-rated for his economic knowledge, ability to remain calm under pressure and non-combative style in the Dáil, Deputy McGrath could well be seen as the new face of Fianna Fáil which many in his own party have yearned for in recent years.

It should be noted, however, that Martin has not yet hinted he is ready to leave. And if he refuses to budge, the political veteran will be difficult to dislodge.

But if recent opinion polls prove accurate at the next General Election, then the desire to install a new Fianna Fáil leader post-election will be massive. The changing of the guard will be fast-tracked.

While McGrath would be the firm favourite of many, other challengers - such as Niall Collins, spokesperson on Justice and Equality, and perhaps even Barry Cowen, brother of former Taoiseach Brian - would consider running for the top job.

But if McGrath truly wants the position, it should be his to lose.

Taking a more consensual and less dogmatic approach to electoral crystal-ball gazing, McGrath said during the summer of 2015 that it would be "out of touch and arrogant" for Fianna Fáil to say it would not go into power unless it was the majority party.

Political commentators believed Deputy McGrath was putting forward the notion of a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil coalition.

Whether he is in favour of such an unlikely marriage, or a mirror image of the 1987 Tallaght Strategy, is not clear - but he was eager for an internal debate on the prospect to take place at the very least.

Many Fianna Fáil traditionalists struggle to even contemplate such a hypothesis.

McGrath, then, is seen as a gradual reformer in waiting and after the hectic first quarter of 2016 passes, the former accountant may well get the opportunity to build a more modern Fianna Fáil as the party seeks to win back former supporters.

And, in many ways, McGrath has a profile that appeals to traditional Fianna Fáilers, too. A local and county councillor, he has risen through the ranks.

While he stresses he is his own man and believes in "more open and transparent" politics, he is generally perceived as being socially conservative.

He pushed for a free vote on the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill and voted against it - as did most of his colleagues, much to Martin's embarrassment. Deputy McGrath did support the Marriage Equality Bill last year.

There is of course one vital step he needs to take first before aiming for the job of party leader - getting re-elected himself.

In the last election, Martin topped the poll in Cork South-Central while McGrath took the fifth and final seat on the 12th count. This will be reduced to a four-seater constituency at the upcoming election, but in the intervening years between elections, McGrath's profile has skyrocketed.

Political anoraks will be keeping a close eye to see how much the gap between McGrath and Martin closes in terms of first preferences (it was 3,500 in 2011).

Some predict that Michael the younger may even outpoll Micheál the elder.

However, if 2016 is to be Michael McGrath's year, he may have to work on his public profile.

While the soft-spoken, unassuming and courteous approach works so well in a profession famously well known for a lack of modesty, he needs to become more PR-friendly and vivacious in front of the cameras.

It could well be the most important year in his political life.

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