Sunday 25 September 2016

A great result - but now Martin faces a dilemma

Published 04/04/2016 | 02:30

Micheál Martin. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins
Micheál Martin. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins

Sometimes, when you are on a high, the next moves are very perilous. So it is with Micheál Martin. A nationwide poll yesterday said a majority finds him the most credible person to be the next Taoiseach.

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Almost four out of 10 people in the poll for the 'Sunday Independent' found the Fianna Fáil leader a more popular choice for Taoiseach than our current night-watchman in that office, Enda Kenny. Mr Kenny got fewer than one in five to back his return as anchor tenant in Government Buildings.

But people of a certain age will appreciate that this survey finding really is something like the "clap-o-meter." That was a measure of public applause in TV talent competitions and those were even more ephemeral than the generality of opinion polls.

As a nation, we are all on a dangerous political corner here. Yesterday's Millward Brown survey for our sister paper is an understandable mixum-gatherum of views from people questioned last week, amid the ongoing political stand-off that is bordering upon stasis.

Seven out of 10 Irish people do not want an election - not quite as strong as the proportion of politicians who strongly hold the same view at Leinster House.

Ask the legions who pounded the canvass beat in January and February last on behalf of their favoured candidate, be it party or Independent or other. They will tell you that they are not going back knocking doors.

But none of that, nationally or locally or in terms of party, may be enough to prevent another general election soon.

There are now emerging signs that Ireland's improved credit rating may be negatively impacted by the ongoing lack of a government. Nobody, least of all this writer, wants to encourage that kind of talk.

But we are in our sixth post-election week without a government. Henceforth, markets will get jittery when looking in upon us. Those fickle money merchants with their, at best, ephemeral take on the world, will deem themselves entitled to be jittery.

The Spanish people went to the polls just days before last Christmas. They have comparable economic problems to ours and their politicians also have not managed to put together a coalition government following on a complex and indeterminate result.

Odds are that they will face another election next month. As time goes on, the same fate will beckon for the Irish electorate.

Back in Dublin, we have had a marathon round of talks between the Independents and Fine Gael, along with some similar contacts with the same groups and Fianna Fáil. Everyone knows that whatever benefits might accrue must be put on the back boiler until we see what Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil might agree on ground rules for a minority-led government, or even still - if far less likely - a grand coalition.

In other words, we await Wednesday's expected Dáil vote for Taoiseach to see whether Mr Kenny or Mr Martin will be ahead on points, otherwise known as the Dáil "clap-o-meter". That, we are told, is about deciding who might be in pole position to lead a minority government.

But we will be very surprised if Mr Martin is ahead of Mr Kenny come Wednesday.

We are less surprised with the 'Sunday Independent' survey finding, which rated his stock as better than that of his Fine Gael adversary.

Micheál Martin took five years of blows since taking over the party leadership in the most adversarial circumstances imaginable in January 2011. He got scant credit for local election gains in May 2014 and courageously disregarded low opinion poll ratings in the run-up to the General Election last month.

Fianna Fáil doubled their seat take - and a bit - on February 26. Micheál Martin emerged with momentum, while Enda Kenny suffered a reverse.

Micheál Martin is on a high. But where to now for Mr Martin and his 'Soldiers of Destiny'?

All the signs are that Mr Martin is looking at the next election and trying to position his party as best he can for that contest, rather than focusing on the coming weeks.

He accuses the media and public of jumping the gun - but he is probably telling his own story in this regard. It could all seriously rebound upon him and his party.

For generations, Fianna Fáil gloried in being the daring and naughty ones. Leave the righteous, ethical carry-on to the Fine Gael crowd, they calculated.

Rather like the cheeky pupil in the classroom, they could get away with stuff. But they equally classed their role as the 'natural party of government' - something they more usually were for decades on end.

Their 2016 "political resurrection" borrowed heavily from all these stereotypical images. They are right to rage about Sinn Féin and Leftist TDs hugging the opposition benches with a certain impunity.

But they also know much good that will do them, as they know that is just political life as it is. Fianna Fáil must live up to the political images they have successfully forged since 1926. That involves hard choices in the coming days.

Like all the rest of us, and all of the political parties, Fianna Fáil are in uncharted political waters. But they are carrying more cultural baggage than anyone else in this situation.

Up to just five years ago, they could always presume they were the biggest political organisation in the country, present in every other half-parish. February 2016 brought revival. But it was still their second-worst election result in history.

Micheál Martin's next moves are crucial. They must be governed by pragmatism, rather than hubris. He must make a workable compromise with Fine Gael.

Meanwhile, those of us who like our politics as much as our sport must put on hold our contemplation of the Labour Party's future, even though leadership internal machinations, and Howlin versus others, build.

Over the years, the very public internal debates about the soul of this, our oldest party, gave us endless political reflection and loads of fun. Better than the bigger 'catch-alls', which travelled with minimal ideological baggage and always went with whatever political wind they could divine.

Labour are down - but far from out. Apart from anything else, we'd miss them.

More about all of this anon.

Irish Independent

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