Friday 15 November 2019

'Leo needs to respect people a bit more than he does' - Micheal Martin

While Leo Varadkar tackles Brexit, Micheal Martin is hearing anger on the doorsteps, writes Niamh Horan

Micheal Martin insists Fianna Fail will ‘put in a €2bn fund over the next five years to subsidise people to buy houses at affordable prices’. Photo: Mark Condren
Micheal Martin insists Fianna Fail will ‘put in a €2bn fund over the next five years to subsidise people to buy houses at affordable prices’. Photo: Mark Condren
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

There's a fleeting moment in our interview when Micheal Martin lets his guard down. It comes out of the blue when I mention, in passing, Leo Varadkar's recent assertion that he can bench press 100kg.

"Ah well...," he laughs, incredulously. "The young lads came in laughing about that recently."

About the bench press?

"Ah they were having the craic."

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As in, can he really do it?

"That's right," Martin laughs - a laugh that comes straight from the belly.

It's a break from the serious image we're used to seeing the Fianna Fail leader present on the news, while his 40-year-old rival channels colourful socks, Electric Picnic weekends and jogs with Justin Trudeau.

While Varadkar never misses a chance for a photo op, Martin doesn't use such measures to connect with young voters. And he is not about to change tack, because, he tells me, he knows what matters to them these days - housing. He hears their anger on the doorsteps, and this is one of the big issues he plans to champion in May 2020.

More on that later.

First to the little matter of what is set to be the most hard-fought general election in years. Sitting in the corner of a city centre cafe, Martin begins to peel off the gloves. "Even today you have ministers tweeting 'I have my election posters ready', urging the Taoiseach to go for an election," he says. "It is the Minister for Health and the Minister for Housing who are gagging for it, no surprise. The rumour in Fine Gael is that they want to get out of health and housing as quickly as possible. It reflects on the paucity of their attempts to deal with the two areas of greatest crisis in our society."

With 11,500 patients on hospital trolleys this month - the second worst total since records began - and 10,397 homeless people in Ireland, another record figure, the Fianna Fail leader may have a point.

He recalls how Enda Kenny's government was "arrogant" going into the 2016 election and lost heavily as a result. The current party, he says, is no different. Calling Fine Gael "detached" and "immature", he feels "they underestimate the level of discontent out there".

He takes Simon Harris's recent social media attack on Eamon Ryan's proposal for the reintroduction of wolves as a case in point. Describing it as a "silly, shallow attack... smart-alec stuff" and weighing that against the respect people have for Ryan as a politician, Martin holds it up as an example that Fine Gael has got too big for its boots. "They need to cop on and button it a bit," he says.

So what about the Taoiseach? What big turnabout would we notice if the Fianna Fail leader was in charge?

"Well, I would bring substance to the office," Martin replies, matter of factly. "I want to get things done when I become Taoiseach. I just don't want to parade around the place."

In Varadkar's case, he says: "It's photo-shoots, it's big announcements about big plans for 2040, when most people I meet are worried about whether their daughter will get a house next year."

He asks if I recall "the famous €5m" [Leo] set aside for media management.

"A spin unit... nakedly and transparently so," he says. "That has summed up Leo's time as Taoiseach to date. The sense that it is all about image. And it's not just him. His ministers are the same. As somebody said to me this morning, Eoghan Murphy would be on the six o'clock news in the blink of an eye if a storm was coming, but when the homeless figures come out, he is nowhere to be seen. That's the way this government have gone about their business."

As for working opposite Varadkar in a confidence and supply arrangement, he hints it can take patience. He recalls how the Fine Gael leader "tried one on" with him by writing a letter urging that they both agree to a May 2020 election (the letter was then leaked to the press) without picking up the phone to Martin, who has been propping up his government for almost four years.

"He needs to respect people a bit more than he does. He inadvertently does this. He doesn't get the dynamic," Martin says, before giving another example of how Varadkar should have cut former British prime minister Theresa May "more slack" earlier, to get a better Brexit than what he has potentially lined Ireland up for under Boris Johnson.

"He just needs to understand where the other person is coming from."

You mean, where you are coming from?

"Yeah. We are in a confidence and supply arrangement but he would throw a letter out like that with no phone call in advance. No background to say 'here is what I am thinking'."

The recent Votegate scandal has been an unwelcome headache for Martin and I wonder - if Fianna Fail gets into power - whether TDs Timmy Dooley and Niall Collins (having been stood down from Fianna Fail's front bench) can kiss any future ministerial roles goodbye.

"I'm not ruling anybody in, or out," he says. "I have been through political life. People go down, people go up. They have to start on the ground again, and work their way up."

What are the incentives he will offer people to vote Fianna Fail? Housing is one of his big calling cards. He would ensure the State gets back to building social housing. "My father was a bus driver. In the late 1950s, he bought a terrace house on Turners Cross with one wage packet. That gives a sense of what people were able to do back then. There were large local authority housing estates built by Fianna Fail governments through the worst of times - when we didn't have the resources we have now. I want to return to a government that is hands-on in building social houses. We will put in a €2bn fund over the next five years to subsidise and assist people to buy houses at affordable prices."

And he reveals the party is looking at introducing an SSIA-style savings scheme for first-time buyers. It is also cautiously considering reducing VAT on first-time homes (but only if he can ensure the money will not end up in the pockets of developers) and he backs economics lecturer Lorcan Sirr's 'Dunkirk solution' to mobilise small builders.

As for the man currently in charge, he says of Murphy: "I don't think he's had enough experience. What seems to be happening is that he can't deal with the officials. If he decides something, he should follow it through.

"Like the example I gave you about the threshold on local authority schemes that was supposed to be raised from €2m to €6m. We agreed this in a budget 12 months ago and he can't get his officials to implement it."

We discuss how Murphy also drew up draft guidelines to allow high-rise buildings in the city - then backed down from implementing them along the docklands.

"I don't understand that," says Martin. "The docklands is where you should have high rise," citing his home city.

"We have a docklands in Cork that should all be high. And it's already agreed down there."

In terms of health, education and climate change, he details some of his party's plans: "We would implement the smoky coal ban in the first 100 days, accelerate the transformation of the bus fleet and move to electric as quickly as possible - it's too slow as it is now - support biodiversity, expand the resources to the National Treatment Purchase Fund to get waiting lists down and provide far greater supports to the elderly for home care packages. As for special needs, we would ensure the Department of Education would employ therapists in schools."

While Varadkar has been busy with Brexit, Martin has been pounding the pavements, knocking on doors, week in, week out. "People are angry," he says. "We are in a stronger position in constituencies than we would have been going into the general election in 2016.

"Things will be different after this election. I can guarantee you that."

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