Wednesday 20 September 2017

'I think he's listening... I'm not sure he's on a certain pathway yet' - Micheál Martin will give Varadkar 12 months to prove himself

Micheál Martin is ready for an election but the incoming Taoiseach will first get a chance to act, he tells Kevin Doyle

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin: ‘I keep my finger on the pulse and feet on the ground.
That work is ongoing’. Photo: Tom Burke
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin: ‘I keep my finger on the pulse and feet on the ground. That work is ongoing’. Photo: Tom Burke
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

As Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar sat across from each other in Government Buildings last week they found far more common ground than either might have expected.

The Dáil isn't working; more investment is needed in health, housing and education; and Brexit is the biggest issue facing the country at this moment.

But the Fianna Fáil leader was clear in his contribution that while they agree on the problems, it is up to the incoming Taoiseach to provide the solutions.

"We pointed out that we feel that the last year was wasted somewhat because of the internal angst within Fine Gael," Mr Martin told the Irish Independent.

"There hasn't been enough progress on housing and homeless issues. Health is getting worse in terms of access. Disabilities issues still loom large. Mortgage arrears.

"I signalled to him that in the context of Brexit and the strategic future of the country education has to be centre-stage in terms of planning for the future."

Leo Varadkar surrounded by his political supporters at the Mansion House in Dublin during the Fine Gael leadership contest. Photo: Gareth Chaney/ Collins
Leo Varadkar surrounded by his political supporters at the Mansion House in Dublin during the Fine Gael leadership contest. Photo: Gareth Chaney/ Collins

And yet Mr Martin is happy to continue the 'confidence and supply' arrangement, on the basis that Mr Varadkar should be given time to turn it all around.

But how much time before Fianna Fáil loses its patience?

"I think certainly over the next 12 months we'd need to see progress on the substantial issues of housing and health. They affect people's daily lives.

"It's terrible that so many people have huge anxiety about where they'll be living next month or the next months. People are living within very short horizons at the moment. That's not acceptable," Mr Martin said.

Leader of Fine Gael Leo Varadkar (right) and partner Matt Barrett (left) in the stands during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying, Group D match at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin. Credit: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Leader of Fine Gael Leo Varadkar (right) and partner Matt Barrett (left) in the stands during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying, Group D match at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin. Credit: Niall Carson/PA Wire

The nature of 'new politics' means both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are in a position to spark an election at any moment - but the spectacle of Theresa May's fall from grace in the UK has sunk the idea of a snap election for now.

Mr Martin is seen among his colleagues as a cautious leader. Mr Varadkar is viewed as somewhat more unpredictable. The odds favour the Fine Gael boss being the one to call an abrupt end to their three Budget deal - but Mr Martin didn't get the impression that such a move is on his mind.

"I didn't get the sense last week that he was contemplating an early run - but nonetheless the pressure comes on, the opinion polls happen and people get carried along with it," he said.

"I get the sense that he wants to give this a chance and create his own space and room. I don't see him going for a snap election in terms of policy platform. We spoke about the confidence and supply and the need for action and delivery."

That doesn't mean Fianna Fáil isn't quietly preparing in the background for a day at the polls.

Party headquarters is compiling fresh policies and revisiting older ones. It is also looking at its "strengths and weaknesses across the constituencies", and representatives are expected to relentlessly continue the ground war.

While he would never say it out loud, Mr Martin is acutely aware that many inside and outside of Fianna Fáil believe he has one final shot at becoming Taoiseach. If he doesn't win the next election, he will be the first leader of his party not to head a government.

The passing of the baton from Enda Kenny to Mr Varadkar makes that task more difficult, but Mr Martin's strategy remains unchanged.

"Because of the enormous profile that the Fine Gael leadership contest generated there will be a bounce in the short-term - but that will level out over time. Let's not get fixated about opinion polls," he said.

The Cork South Central TD is a long-time critic of opinion polls, arguing there is "something going on" with polling in every country. He argues it is "on the ground" that politicians can get a real feel for where the country is and people are not ready for another election yet.

"I keep my finger on the pulse and feet on the ground. That work is ongoing. I do it over five years.

"I find it very helpful in terms of my presentation in Leinster House. It helps me get out of the Leinster House bubble to keep in touch with real people."

But he added: "One could argue one will always be ready and one will never be ready in terms of preparation for election. But if at any stage an election happens we will be ready for such. We came out of the last election with renewed vigour as a party, that's evident in terms of membership across the country.

"One of the essential characteristics of any politician is to have that part of the DNA, to be ready to respond to the unexpected and particularly the electoral unexpected. Anything can happen, you've got to be ready for it.

"That has to be hard-wired into your DNA. So the answer, in short, is yes we'll be ready."

Asked if he will make it to the Taoiseach's office after that election, he admitted its "an important one for the party".

"We're on 45 seats. I've an ambition to raise that so that we can be of a critical mass and that we will be involved in the formation of the next government, and that we'll be leading that government," he said.

"That will put us in a position to implement the policies that we think are best attuned to the people of the country. That is the objective we have set ourselves as a party and it's one we will be pursuing."

In the meantime, he intends to take the battle to Mr Varadkar.

"In the Dáil we will be forceful and holding the Government to account. But we will be coming up with ideas too," he said.

"There have been criticisms of poor legislative output from this Dáil. I would argue that's predominantly the Government's fault."

During his meeting with Mr Varadkar, he named seven bills that could be progressed if the two parties work together. These include legislation relating to institutes of technology, the sale of alcohol, affordable childcare, zero hours contracts, school admissions, mental health and mortgage rates.

Mr Varadkar has committed to working on these and to paying particular attention to the areas of mental health and education.

"There's practical things that could happen that would give a sense of commitment to the content for the Programme for Government," Mr Martin said.

So what kind of leader does he believe Mr Varadkar will make?

"It remains to be seen. I think he was listening a lot. I'm not sure he's on a certain pathway yet.

"I get the sense of a pragmatic approach and from what I could judge at that meeting a sense of willing to engage. He will be different from Enda Kenny in many respects," he said.

"But I think fundamentally it remains to be seen how he will rise to the challenge and adapt to the political realities of being Taoiseach."

Irish Independent

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