Monday 20 January 2020

Martin looks at Bernie Sanders for the answers

Fianna Fail leader vows to challenge power of global corporations in fight for younger voters

Micheal Martin may be turning into an Irish version of US politician Bernie Sanders, with his campaigning on social justice, and his focus on younger members of society
Micheal Martin may be turning into an Irish version of US politician Bernie Sanders, with his campaigning on social justice, and his focus on younger members of society
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

Could Micheal Martin be Ireland's answer to Bernie Sanders? The Fianna Fail leader is almost 20 years younger than the 77-year-old senator who captured the imagination of younger voters during last year's roller-coaster ride of a US presidential election.

Martin also doesn't have a cool campaign slogan like Sanders' "feel the bern" hashtag, which lit up social media during the presidential race.

But his views and political stance are beginning to mirror those of the social justice-campaigning American politician.

They both extol the virtues of affordable housing, reduced prescription costs and now the Fianna Fail chief wants to take on globalisation.

In an era of increasingly divisive political debates, Martin also knows winning over young voters is more important than ever before.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams tries to appeal to the youth with odd tweets about rubber ducks, while Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is using novelty socks and his knowledge of romantic comedies to appeal to younger voters.

Now, Martin wants a piece of that electoral pie but, as is his nature, he doesn't want to do it through gimmicks or public relations strategies.

"I will be myself and I will be my own character," he told the Sunday Independent. "I think Bernie Sanders is interesting. I was interested when he came to Ireland," he added.

"He generated a fair degree of interest among young people."

He said Sanders's rise to prominence during the Democratic Party primary contest last year was because he "tapped into this disillusionment among young people about globalisation".

Read More: It was Fianna Fail who made real progress on pensioner poverty

Martin also believes the current generation of young people are the most disadvantaged of any other generation in recent history. It's the first time in many generations that younger people - those in their 20s and 30s - will be less well off than their parents.

This is down to the soaring cost of living - housing, motor insurance and third level education - and the decline in job security and fair pay in most industries.

"We benefited from globalisation but, on the other hand, it has its downside, and its downside has manifested itself in much more job insecurity, lower income starting out now right across the board in most sectors," he said. "We can't keep going the way we are going because it is not sustainable in my view and I genuinely believe it represents a danger to democracy and stable politics.

"That's why, in my view, you had the election you had in the United States, that's why you had Brexit."

He wants to take on "global corporations" and tell them if you "don't invest in your human resources, you are going nowhere".

But what's he going to do about it?

"I think globally it's beginning to happen with the G20 but not to the degree we would want. Here domestically, we can help with the tax agenda. Basically, we can help by reducing tax and giving a greater margin to workers.

"We can help by aggressively tackling something like the car insurance. We need to look at the costs that young people have to take on board. I think it means a political focus on young people that hasn't been there in recent years."

He would like to see tax cuts focused on young middle income earners - reduce the 2.5pc Universal Social Charge (USC) to 2pc or the 5pc to 4.5pc. This is shift from the previous Fianna Fail policy of focusing on both lower and middle income earner.

But he's not only focused on young voters. He also wants to increase the threshold for charging business owners capital gains tax from €1m to €15m. He believes this is necessary because businesses relying on the British market are considering moving to the UK due to Brexit.

He would also like to see more State supports for self-employed people whose businesses don't work out.

"The big cry after the crash from the self-employed was what happens when something goes wrong for someone who is self-employed and what safety net is there for them and that hasn't been put to bed," he added.

Other budget demands will see Fianna Fail insisting that mortgage interest relief for struggling homeowners is maintained and the threshold for the drugs payment scheme is reduced by around €10.

Budget discussions between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael will begin earnest when the Dail resumes in September. In the long term, Martin wants to establish a State building agency that would build both social and affordable housing for younger people and families. He believes there is an idealogical opposition in Fine Gael to building social housing.

"We want to give people some sense of a future because, at the moment, most young people are saying they won't own a house for 10 or 15 years, if ever, because the rent is soaking up any available income they have," he said

He said he was "very disappointed" in his constituency colleague Simon Coveney for ditching the Department of Housing for the Department of Foreign Affairs after just one year in the job.

"I genuinely thought he'd be in housing for at least three years and it doesn't help people's confidence, it saps our confidence, when the first chance you get, you're out of there," he said.

Read More: Martin refused three opportunities to call for €5 weekly pension hike

"Maybe he's done all his PR on housing and delivery wasn't happening and he was only getting out before things got worse," he added.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar also has too much of a "heavy focus on the public relations", according to Martin.

"It is known in the Department of Health the Taoiseach was very focused on the good announcements. He is different personality to others and we are all different in individual ways but I think there needs to be more substance and there needs to be more delivery," he said.

He also has some sharp words for Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin who has been critical of Fianna Fail's stance on water charges. "We had water charges up to 1997 from 1983, then Brendan Howlin got rid of them. Then Brendan becomes a great advocate 10 years later. It's hard to take the lecturing from Brendan and other people," he said.

He is more measured and nuanced than usual on his views of Sinn Fein.

Martin is still insisting he would not go into government with Sinn Fein.

However, he is less forceful on the prospect of entering into a confidence and supply arrangement with Gerry Adams. He said he does not "envisage" such a scenario which, due to policy difference, would be "very difficult" but he certainly does not rule out the prospect.

"I think we need to have a healthy respect for the electorate and a healthy respect for the dynamics of politics and things change and that's my overall position now," he said. "Predictions that people make about elections don't materialise and there is a huge danger in trying to create a narrative around post-election scenarios in advance of the election that might be completely at odds with what happens."

Martin is also concerned about the rise of social media, which brings "progress" and "perils".

He would like to see mainstream media fight back and believes there is a responsibility on the State to support the local radio and print newspapers. He wants to create a State-sponsored fund for the newspaper industry so as to ensure quality journalism continues.

The fund would be kept at "arm's length" from the government to ensure it could not be used to exert pressure on newspapers.

Sunday Independent

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