Micheál Martin ready for battle with new generation of rivals
With a renewed front bench, the Fianna Fáil leader still has eyes on taoiseach role
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin with his constituency colleague and Fine Gael leadership contestant Simon Coveney in Cork on Monday. Photograph: Jim Coughlan.
McDonald has been around for a while, but isn’t exactly a veteran. Her elevation will also lead to some changes in personnel, with a handful of the younger deputies being elevated to the front bench.
With a new Fine Gael taoiseach and a new Sinn Féin leader, Fianna Fáil will find it more difficult to sell itself as the renewal party and its leader Micheál Martin (along with his Labour counterpart Brendan Howlin) will be unable to market themselves under the heading of youthful zeal.
Will it make any difference? Ultimately, no. There are many different ingredients that are necessary to become a credible political leader. You don’t need to be an intellectual giant, but you have to have political nous. What is required is good judgment and an innate instinct to act or make decisions. The other trait can be variously described as energy levels or “fire in the belly”. The latter, to employ a posh phrase, is a sine qua non. That’s why Kenny made it and Michael Noonan didn’t.
Sure, Martin is now in his mid-50s, but he has an abundance of energy, and an obvious appetite for the chase. Fianna Fáil’s front bench primarily comprises politicians in their 30s and 40s. The only veteran is Éamon Ó Cuív and newcomers such as Jim O’Callaghan, Anne Rabbitte, Niamh Smyth, Lisa Chambers, John Lahart and Senator Catherine Ardagh have assumed senior positions.
So where does it leave the situation? Well, Fine Gael’s new leader will certainly have a honeymoon period, which should be reflected in opinion polls.
A senior Fianna Fáil politician, speaking privately, reckons it could be initially 6 per cent but would then settle at 2 per cent. “We are prepared to take that hit.”
Last year, shortly after the confidence and supply agreement was made, senior Fianna Fáil people said if Fine Gael changed its leader, all bets would be off. The party now says it is willing to stay for the agreed three budgets.
But that presupposes Fine Gael won’t go for an early election. If Leo (who plays himself as a disrupter) wins the race, the chances of a snap election will increase, with Fine Gael hoping to benefit from Varadkar vroom in the polls.
That, more than age profile, could put a stop to Fianna Fáil going too far north of 50 seats in the ensuing election.
Fianna Fáil says that the change of Fine Gael leadership won’t make a material difference to the agreement but there will have to be discussions and they might lead to changes, nuanced rather than major.
Does Martin fear Varadkar more than Coveney? Certainly it will be uncomfortable to have the leaders of the two main parties in the same constituency of Cork South Central. That said, there is a consensus among TDs in both parties that Martin and Coveney would probably have a smoother working relationship than Martin with a Varadkar-led Fine Gael.
But then Fianna Fáil points out while Varadkar’s rhetoric and posturing (especially during negotiations) was harder, it has been Coveney who has dug in more in real situations (particularly over housing and water).
The party’s attitude is, yes, the new leader will hit our ratings but we are still confident enough that we will emerge the biggest party after the next election. The strategy, therefore, remains the same.