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Dáil depends on how much Micheál is willing to sway in midst of election earthquake

Caroline O'Doherty in Cork


Under pressure: Micheál Martin arrives for the count at the Cork South-Central constituency at Nemo Rangers GAA club. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Under pressure: Micheál Martin arrives for the count at the Cork South-Central constituency at Nemo Rangers GAA club. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Getty Images

Under pressure: Micheál Martin arrives for the count at the Cork South-Central constituency at Nemo Rangers GAA club. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Micheál Martin arrived at the count centre just in time to sing happy birthday to constituency rival Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire as the Sinn Féiner celebrated the double of turning 31 and topping the poll to retain his Dáil seat.

Ó Laoghaire was actually 31 and a day old, his birthday having coincided with polling day, but a little latitude is allowable in such circumstances.

In fact, it will be essential in the days to come, for no matter how much huffing and puffing went on during the election campaign, the thought of blowing the chance of finally becoming Taoiseach may be too much for Micheál to bear.

He had his speech well prepared as he arrived at Nemo Rangers GAA Club in the mid-afternoon to the inevitable questions about his feelings on coalition with the unmentionables, now that a large chunk of the electorate had ignored the dire warnings about fantasy economics and a security meltdown to give Sinn Féin their number ones.

Before anyone could mention back-tracking, U-turning, volte-faces or red faces, Micheál was in with a positive spin on the conundrum in which he now found himself. No greater democrat existed than he, he declared. He would listen to the people, he promised.

And there was an obligation on all serious and sensible people to form a government for the good of the country.

Humility, flexibility and responsibility are the new post-election slogans. Latitude, not attitude, is the lesson learned.

So how much leeway is the man in danger of becoming the only Fianna Fáil leader never to become Taoiseach willing to give? A desire for change drove the election result, was the general consensus among commentators. People were hungry for something new, opined Ó Laoghaire.

But Micheál is hungry for a transformation in his own fortunes too for he also marks a 31st birthday this year - the 31 years he has been a TD for Cork South Central.

Longevity of service is an achievement but elevation of status is the ambition and Taoiseach Martin has a ring to it for a man desperate to prove, to himself as much as anyone else, that his near-nine-year mission to rebuild the party of national ruin has not been in vain.

And so he finds himself in a maelstrom of possibilities in a constituency that is a microcosm of the madness this election has unleashed on traditional politics.

Cork South Central has a poll-topping Sinn Féiner who more than doubled his vote from 2016 and might have secured a second seat had the party been bold enough to field a running mate.

It has Simon Coveney who, since 2016, has challenged for position of Taoiseach, lost the contest, become Tánaiste and could be in the running for leader of his party again if Leo Varadkar can't pull something out of the results hat for Fine Gael, and if Paschal Donohoe doesn't get there first.

It has Michael McGrath, Fianna Fáil's very own Paschal, who could delight in seeing the boss become Taoiseach for what it might mean for his own career, or who might scupper all attempts at forming a government because, to him, those fantasy economics are a very real problem.

And it has the man who would be Taoiseach himself, or who might not even retain leadership of Fianna Fáil if he sends his party down the wrong path.

This election is not just an earthquake for national politics; it is a tremor deep inside the political parties that have dominated public life in Ireland for generations.

In earthquakes, the buildings that sway survive best but if they sway too much they crumble. Micheál Martin now has to work out how much he can sway from core principles to accommodate the ground-shaking Sinn Féiners before he puts his party at risk of collapse. "Don't eat them all," one of the count staff warned a colleague squeezing the last mint out of a packet of Mentos. "You'll need them when we're back here next month."

Jokes about re-running the election abounded after the tallies but once the implications of what the numbers revealed had been allowed a few hours to sink in, the joking ended and the genuine speculation began.

Nobody could muster a smile at the prospect. Not even the Sinn Féin campaign workers, whose party might get a second chance to field second candidates in all the constituencies where their new and newly enhanced TDs had plentiful votes to spare.

"The people have spoken. They shouldn't have to speak twice to get what they want," said one, whose party sticker was peeling away from his jumper in exhaustion.

But is it clear-cut what an electorate that votes for a three-way tie wants apart from something different to what went before?

Whoever interprets that muddled message accurately is on a winner. Whoever misreads it can wave their political ambitions goodbye.

In the scrum that descended on his rival after the results of the first count, it was too hard to see if Micheál actually joined in the sing-song.

But before Ó Laoghaire's supporters serenaded him with happy birthday, they hoisted him high and launched into a Wolfe Tones' classic. "We're on the one road sharing the one load, we're on the road to God knows where," they sang.

"We're on the one road, maybe the wrong road, but we're together now who cares. Though we've had our troubles now and then, now's the time to make them up again."

It could be the soundtrack to the next government if Micheál decides to dance to Sinn Féin's tune.

Irish Independent

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