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If there were years of unfair budgets, it was due to the chaos caused when Martin was a minister


Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin with former Taoisigh Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen. Photo: Arthur Carron

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin with former Taoisigh Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen. Photo: Arthur Carron

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin with former Taoisigh Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen. Photo: Arthur Carron

Slim pickings. That's what is on offer to the solid, centre ground of the electorate seeking a moderate and responsible political party to support.

Fine Gael seems to be stuck with a leader it patently doesn't want; a Taoiseach who, Haughey-like, stubbornly refuses to accept what everybody knows - that his time is up.

Labour will return at some point. But, for now, it remains horribly compromised by 14 years of saying one thing (actually make that 'anything') in opposition to get votes, and five of doing the exact opposite in government.

The Social Democrats, meanwhile, have succumbed to that most Irish of outcomes - 'the split'.

Then there's Fianna Fáil, which seems determined to toss away five years of slow, incremental progress in rebuilding its reputation to chase an electoral pot of gold under some rainbow (coalition).

Micheál Martin's Bodenstown address on Sunday was an irony-free zone. This writer has never really bought into the simplistic 'Fianna Fáil bankrupted the country' narrative. As the excellent Nyberg report made clear, the causes of the crash were complex and multi-faceted. No one thing brought about the meltdown. Fine Gael's recent reckless budget made a mockery of its claims it would have done things differently if it had been in government during the Celtic Tiger.

That said, it was clearly Fianna Fáil in power in the decade leading up to the crash. The case that no other party would have done things differently may be compelling. Nonetheless, Fianna Fáil, as the party that was in office, has to take its share of the blame.

So for Martin to claim that, thanks to his party, some of the worst damage which Fine Gael policies have caused in the past five years have begun to be unwound is risible. Were those FG policies more damaging than, for example, the farcical benchmarking exercise of 15 years ago; the double-digit annual spending increases that were the norm during the boom years; the corresponding cavalier erosion of the tax base; the SSIA accounts; the fuelling of the housing bubble and so on?

Unless perhaps you are of a Trotskyite persuasion, the answer to that question would have to be a resounding 'no'.

It's true some independent agencies did find the Fine Gael/Labour budgets to be more regressive than those introduced by Brian Lenihan after the crash. But that's really a moot point.

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The reality is the Fine Gael and Labour government of 2011-2016 largely maintained the budgetary correction policies of Lenihan and Brian Cowen from 2008-2010. And there was a whole heap of pain involved in both cases.

Attempting to differentiate between the two is a little like telling a man with two broken arms and a broken leg that it could have been worse, he could have had one broken arm, but two broken legs.

A little perspective from Martin wouldn't go amiss. If there were years of "socially unjust and unfair budgets" as he claimed on Sunday, it was mainly because of the economic and financial chaos caused by the madness of the Celtic Tiger, when the Fianna Fáil leader was a senior minister.

Martin was actually quite strong in facing up to this reality during the last Dáil - accepting that mistakes were made and taking some of the responsibility for that. But that's changed. Based on his Bodenstown speech, he seems to be not so much attempting to rewrite history, as ignoring it. It's like political life only began in 2011.

He's not the only one guilty of that mind you. The recent budget had large elements of déjà vu from the 1999-2006 period about it.

Partly that is a consequence of the budget having so many authors, but it also points to a collective failing on all our parts to learn from our mistakes. Even, it seems, while we are still paying for them. Because there's no question the industrial relations chaos that is about to be unleashed has its roots in the madness of the noughties.

Union leaders talk about 'simply seeking pay restoration'. But that ignores the reality that public sector pay more than doubled during that decade - courtesy of benchmarking and social partnership and funded by an unsustainable bubble economy.

If we go down that road again by undermining the Lansdowne Road Agreement, then it's only a matter of 'when', not 'if', the next crisis happens. There's actually a big chunk of centre-ground voters out there who get that, who haven't forgotten what drove the economy into meltdown. Yet, with the possible exception of Leo Varadkar in recent days, centrist politicians seem terrified to take a stand on this issue. Fianna Fáil in particular.

The challenge to Lansdowne Road - by far the biggest political story of recent weeks - didn't get one word of a mention in Micheál Martin's speech. Instead, we got silly 'right-wing agenda' insults better suited to student politics.

To what end? Middle ground voters don't share the obsession of political journalists, Jack O'Connor, Mary Lou McDonald, Richard Boyd Barrett et al about 'right' and 'left'. They don't give a monkey's. They just want politicians to do the 'right' thing by them and the country.

Martin seemed to understand that reality when he made the historic decision to support Enda Kenny for Taoiseach. But, as opinion polls showed Fianna Fáil making gains, the party, sensing an opportunity to make even quicker gains, miscalculated and slipped back into populist type.

There are already signs from opinion polls that it won't wash with 'centrist' voters. Many of them must now be wondering where to go?

The Government is wholly unconvincing. It's not just Kenny or the constant agonising of the Independent Alliance. There are some serious operators in the Cabinet, but there are also others who don't look up to the job or who have been there too long.

There's an opportunity for Fianna Fáil, but not based on the empty rhetoric we heard at Bodenstown on Sunday.

Shane Coleman presents 'Newstalk Breakfast', weekdays from 7am.