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'The Dail has to change. It was a Punch and Judy show'

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'WE'RE GONE PAST PLAYING THE GAME IN THIS COUNTRY': Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin with Sunday Independent Editor Aengus Fanning. Photo: David Conachy

'WE'RE GONE PAST PLAYING THE GAME IN THIS COUNTRY': Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin with Sunday Independent Editor Aengus Fanning. Photo: David Conachy

'WE'RE GONE PAST PLAYING THE GAME IN THIS COUNTRY': Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin with Sunday Independent Editor Aengus Fanning. Photo: David Conachy

There is something about politicians. While ordinary mortals might think there is no point in trying to sail your boat when the tide is out, politicians positively thrive in swimming against the tide.

But I'm not at all sure that the Fianna Fail tide has gone out quite as far as people think, or as the national polls seem to show.

Micheal Martin has only a few weeks to turn that tide, and at best he will have modest success.

But there is a lot more to Fianna Fail, and it is far more deep- rooted in our psyche, than is apparent from the answers given to pollsters.

In the secrecy of the ballot box, with not one Irish Times editorial writer in sight, thousands will stage a silent revolt and, against all reason and in spite of years of disastrous economic incompetence, will put their number one in a Fianna Fail box.

The party's share of the national vote will be 20-22 per cent, and in two years' time, Martin's Fianna Fail will be unrecognisable from the demoralised, mediocre shambles he has inherited after the debacle of the Cowen era.

Fine Gael remains a middle-class party, with plenty of doctors and barristers in its ranks, respectable and good people who have probably made a real sacrifice to go into politics. Some could be earning €1,000,000 in the professions.

Notwithstanding golden circles and cosy cartels, Fianna Fail is a truer mirror image of our aspirations than is Fine Gael.

Martin himself, a bus driver's son from Turner's Cross in Cork, was one of the first generation of his family to go to secondary school and was the first to go to college.

He knows that Fianna Fail will lose many seats this time, but he also knows that for many like himself, the party represents aspirational Ireland and that, when the chips are down, these same people will distrust Sinn Fein's social utopia and Gerry Adam's very presence in the politics of the Republic, just as much as they will feel excluded by Fine Gael's eternal culture of land and the professions.

Aengus Fanning: "Congratulations on becoming the new leader of Fianna Fail. My particular concern is the economy and in particular, the consumer economy, which looks like it will shrink again in 2011 for the fourth successive year. This consumer economy has been sacrificed by the Frankfurt/Brussels Axis in order to bring our prices and costs down and enable export-led growth to continue in the very heartening path it has achieved. I think the price being paid is very high and I see it as a humanitarian argument -- this morning as I was walking down the main street in Blackrock, a woman named Sandra, who has a boutique called Sandz, said 'I'm closing down on Monday week'. I meet that and so do you every day of the week."

Micheal Martin: "The economy is key here. We did it before, in terms of the export side, which has a huge effect on the domestic economy. There is no going away from the path we are on. I acknowledge what you are saying in terms of the domestic economy, small business etc, they are surviving by their finger tips. The costs to small business have to be reduced, commercial rates are too high and it is choking shops and retail across the country.

"There are 1.8 million working in the domestic economy, 15 years ago, it was less than 800,000. They feel there is too much regulation, too many charges on them. We narrowed the tax base too much and small business is taking an unacceptable share of that burden. But you have to lead on the export sector because that will have an effect on the domestic economy."

AF: "But with respect, you are deflating it. Consumer demand is depressed, confidence is low."

MM: "Uncertainty is the greatest curse we have and in this election, we have to be honest with people. I can't pretend things are better, but I can say there is a pathway that can lead us out of the current crisis. Savings are abnormally high because people are afraid about their job security, about mortgages and that means political parties have to give certainty in what they do. So like it or not, we have to get the deficit down to three per cent, because that is the right thing to do. Otherwise we will just continue a cycle of debt upon debt.

"Certainty will lead to confidence and also a performing export sector will lead to confidence. I'd see us emerging in 2011, there will be growth."

AF: "The rate of closure is slowing but the depressing of demand in the consumer economy, allowing businesses to close and people to lose their jobs, is seen as an alternative to consistent and steady management of public spending over a number of years and the huge amount that has gone into the banks."

MM: "That is the big concern I have about the certainty issue. What we are saying is that we have to cut public spending more, rather than have tax increases. We are saying the balance in terms of further correction of the deficit must be on public spending. We have to cut, across welfare, across various programmes in each department. But you are looking at a €30bn correction. I would argue that we have already taken €21bn out from the beginning of the crisis. That crucified us in terms of popularity, but we did it in the best interests in the country. The country can't sustain old-style politics and what worries me about the Labour Party is that they are shifting their position all the time and Fine Gael are as well. The Labour Party will still tax excessively, I have no doubt about that. They will go back to their stated position; they are worried about Sinn Fein and independents eating into their vote. Fine Gael are the same. That is old politics and it won't work for the country. We have to throw away the old way of doing things."

AF: "You have put your finger on it. People are tired of watching the party political game here. It is all right if we are not in crisis, but we are in crisis, and people have just become frustrated."

MM: "The guys you are talking about are saying to hell with them in Europe and to hell with them in Frankfurt. The ECB has lent us €100bn at one per cent. I don't think the Labour Party are honest when they say we can negotiate the deal on our own. They can't. Just take the bondholders for a second. What are they? Some of them are credit unions, some are Irish pension funds, do we want to crucify them as well?"

AF: "The only argument I will put up for 'burning the bondholders' is that I think that attitude will do no harm if we display a certain belligerency about it. As far as the public are concerned, we go along with our cap in our hand and we are told what to do and we meekly accept it."

MM: "We have to put our heart to one side and use our head. We do have to have faith in ourselves. We did this in the Eighties and export-led growth led to a domestic pick-up and that is the confidence we need to reinstate. We have huge strengths that we need to tap into.

"The problem for the domestic side is the timeline, they have to really wait a bit, the economy has to take off a bit and the spend will come back once there is sufficient lift on the export side."

AF: "I see politicians of all parties thinking politics instead of economics. That is

their business and their first reaction is the political one."

MM: "You are perfectly correct. The Dail has to change. It was a Punch & Judy Show, we all competed on how much we could spend and how much we could reduce taxes by. Any political system that only discusses the banking system after it has collapsed, that is a failure of parliament. We didn't discuss the profound issues. In my view, it failed us.

"We made mistakes . . . that brings us to political and Dail reform. I would propose a single-seat constituency system because there is too much in-fighting between TDs and what you have is a permanent election campaign. That is not good for sound policy considerations. I would top it up with a national list system. We don't want a detached or elitist group, but on the other hand, there is a excessive localism and not enough focus on national issues. Government must be opened up to people outside the parliament. We have narrowed membership of the Cabinet to members of the Dail and I am saying we must bring in outside expertise -- like the American system, a Taoiseach or a parliament can appoint people who are outside the Dail, people with expertise."

AF: "And what proportion of the Cabinet?"

MM: "One of the failures in recent times, in terms of public service, has been the absence of sufficient expertise in certain areas in government and in the public service as well. When I was in Health, for example, there was no health economist. The Department of Finance could have done with external expertise -- look at all the external expertise that's come in there in recent times. I think right across the system we're proposing fundamental change to the way the Dail itself does its business. "

AF: "What's your read on Fianna Fail itself at this particular crossroads?"

MM: "At one level obviously, it's in a very challenging position. But I always see crisis as opportunity. I came from a working class family in Cork. I was the first in my family to get university education. I hate the idea that a child born in a certain community can't make it in life or won't make it because of a lack of opportunity. That's why I didn't walk off the pitch, I could have and that's why I admire people like Willie O'Dea, he's a committed person, that's why I admire John Hillery, a very senior medic in our system. I want the 'new generation'. Fianna Fail still has a unique role to play in the country.

"I think Sinn Fein are coming into the South, for example, and I think Sinn Fein need to be challenged more. They're saying 'we'll walk away from the IMF'. There's €50bn we're drawing down between now and 2014 to pay the wages of nurses, guards, fire brigade people, you name it and we need that €50bn. Gerry Adams seems to say we'll walk away from it and doesn't tell us where he's going to get the money to pay."

AF: "But do you think a re-negotiation is possible?"

MM: "Unilaterally, a re-negotiation is not possible. What is possible, of course, and what we're working on is that Europe might change the entire stability mechanism. The two countries that are benefiting at the moment are Greece and Ireland, if they keep going that way, some politicians are suggesting they're going the wrong route -- it just needs intelligent diplomacy.

"I think the reality is dawning on some of the European leaders, and there are different problems in the different states. The Germans, for example, have no political tolerance for deficits and they've no political tolerance for, if you like, giving people an easy ride but equally it's in everybody's interest that whatever loan facility you put in place and whatever interest rates are charged ultimately enables somebody to recover."

AF: "They suffered through a very punitive 1919 Versailles Treaty."

MM: "They did but what I'm saying, at European-wide level, I think there will be change. I think it'll come about through intelligence, discussion, negotiation, not in an unilateral way."

AF: "I understand what you're saying but at the very least, people would like us to show some stronger signs of sovereignty."

MM: "Agreed, but sovereignty is always won by intelligence at the end of the day, not by dying in the trenches, that's my view."

AF: "But the reality is Sinn Fein have got a popular drum to beat there, how are you going to counter that?"

MM: "I'm going to counter it by pointing out if you took Sinn Fein at their logic, you'd have to dramatically increase taxes. Sinn Fein tax proposals are shocking in terms of right across the board; they're going to massively increase income tax, I mean, to excessive degrees.

"No matter where you put tax, people have to take it out of their wages to pay it at the end of the day -- you can try and camouflage as best you can, so across rural Ireland and so forth, they will tax to the hilt. That's their approach but you're correct, they're playing the popular line. It needs to be subjected to detailed scrutiny in terms of what actually they're proposing and that's my big worry overall about the election , we can all play the game, but we're gone past playing the game in this country.

"The first big problem they are going to have is the climbdown -- I am satisfied going into this election we won't have climbdown from the Fianna Fail perspective. I won't have any climbdown because I am saying it as it is. Whether I am in opposition, I will support any set of policies that will get us out of this crisis. By any, I am saying I will support the right and correct set of policies, along the lines that we have been proposing."

AF: "Do you think that Fianna Fail gets fair treatment from the media?"

MM: "We have been in the trenches with the media. Overall, we have not engaged properly with the media."

AF: "Is there in some elements of the media, the middle-class, slightly left-wing elements, a cultural bias against Fianna Fail?"

MM: "Yes. We have never been good enough for certain elements of the Irish intelligencia. In certain corners of the Irish Times, for example, it is very clear, we have never been good enough for them. On the other hand, there are very fair journalists in the Irish Times but editorially they would have a difficulty and a challenge with us. I think bias comes across in certain sections of the media."

AF: "How is Fianna Fail financed?"

MM: "We are fine financially for the election -- we won't be spending as much money as Fine Gael -- and that's one of tasks and challenges I will have after the election, to put in place a sustainable financial model of finance. Corporate donations will be out in the end of the day."

AF: "Would you say this is the new Fianna Fail?"

MM: "I think what you are seeing is the emergence of the new Fianna Fail."

Sunday Independent