Micheál Martin says his party is ‘within reach’ of government
Fianna Fáil leader cannot see coalition with Sinn Féin after the next election
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin in his Leinster House office. “I come from a background which in many respects has always been pro-life but I have never been absolutist or judgemental.” Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Micheál Martin asks that you do not read between the lines of what he is saying to divine meaning, but at times you are left with no other option.
As a practitioner of constructive ambiguity – back in vogue this Christmas – Martin excels. It is not a cardinal sin in a politician. In fact, as leader of a political party who has to bring an organisation with him, let alone convince voters of his merits, it is understandable.
He is in upbeat form, and has been a cheery presence in the Leinster House corridors in the final sitting weeks of the Dáil term. The findings of the recent Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll that put his party 11 points behind Fine Gael have been brushed aside, in public at any rate.
As the year winds down the political focus has been on the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which recommended that abortion be permitted within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy without restrictions.
After Christmas the Government will have to decide on the wording of a referendum to be held next May or June. The Government’s proposal will have to pass a Dáil in which both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have given TDs a free vote.
The majority view in Fianna Fáil, Martin believes, is probably pro-life, a label he identifies with. Over the past year his views on the issue have become somewhat clearer. He favours abortion in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormalities, but will not be drawn on whether he favours what the Oireachtas committee has suggested.
Some of his TDs, such as Billy Kelleher, the health spokesman, were in the vanguard of the committee’s move towards a more liberal recommendation than most had expected, and Martin says he wants time to examine its conclusions.
“I come from a background which in many respects has always been pro-life but I have never been absolutist or judgemental,” he tells The Irish Times. “There is the other side of the equation as well. There is a baby in the womb. Some people would call it a foetus right up to the birth. I couldn’t do that.”
You cannot read into what he is saying, Martin argues, that he favours a very defined set of circumstances in which abortion is permitted rather than a significant liberalisation of the current regime.
It would be incorrect to ascribe his reticence on this issue to political calculation or party management. Since its 2011 general election humiliation, Fianna Fáil has taken occasional advice from Prof Tim Bale of Queen Mary University, London, on how to rebuild. At its recent ardfheis Bale warned delegates that Fianna Fáil could find itself on the opposite side of the abortion debate to the young urban voters it needs. Martin does not agree with Bale on this count. “People have to have beliefs too.”
Nor does he accept that he will have to play a leadership role in the referendum campaign itself. “No more than anybody else. I’m not sure the degree to which the public want politicians to start dictating to them in terms of an issue so fundamental as this.”
He accepts that a question should be put to the people, but says his views will only “crystallise” when the Government brings forward proposals on what exactly that question should be.
Whatever way the referendum is framed, Martin believes “there is a way of dealing with it in a way that resolves it for potentially a decade” but doesn’t say what that is.
The abortion issue will dominate political discourse in the first half of 2018, but the coming of Varadkar as Fine Gael leader has changed the dynamic of the confidence and supply deal, Martin’s brainchild agreement that sees Fianna Fáil underpin the minority Government.
The past month saw it “tested like never before” when the country was brought to the brink of a general election before Frances Fitzgerald resigned over the latest controversy involving Garda whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe.
Martin was largely judged to have got the better of Varadkar, displaying better judgement and nerve, but the subsequent polling suggested the public at large paid little heed.
The frantic weekend of crisis talks with Varadkar to avert and election “were useful” .
“We actually got to know each other a bit better.”
After coming through the heat of a crisis, some believe Martin and Varadkar will hold to the commitment in the confidence and supply deal to three budgets.
Exactly what happens after Paschal Donohoe delivers that final budget is still an open question, and certainly not one Martin wants to answer.
“It’s a very good question,” he says. “I think we need delivery on the existing confidence and supply first. And the two outstanding issues are housing and health. There is a review at the end of 2018. Come back to me then.”
He also dismisses suggestions Fianna Fáil will simply not allow Fine Gael spend the €3 billion expected to be available next October, when it could be spreading the largesse itself.
“That’s nonsense. It is nonsense because I am around long enough to know that budgets don’t win elections because everything is relative.”
It is not quite the cast iron guarantee it seems on first reading, however.
“We are committed to confidence and supply but we want to see delivery first on the second [budget],” adds Martin. “There is no point in giving people a free pass for four years.”
He is equally noncommittal on whether Fianna Fáil, as is widely assumed, will field a candidate in next year’s presidential election. “I’m not confirming that. We’ll have further consultation on it. I don’t want to undermine the incumbent.”
This year saw the party celebrate the centenary of the birth of Jack Lynch, but Martin’s political tutelage came under the leaders who succeeded his fellow Cork man: Charles Haughey, Albert Reynolds, Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen.
When asked what lessons he learned from each, Martin reflectively leans back in his chair.
Haughey, he says, “was very structured in policy terms, notwithstanding all the other issues”.
Ahern, whose readmittance to Fianna Fáil has been spurned by Martin, is praised for his “tenacity, dialogue, diplomacy and political skill” in negotiating the Good Friday Agreement, “his enduring legacy”.
Cowen, who Martin challenged as leader, is warmly praised for putting “country before party”.
But you get the sense the traits he attributes to Reynolds are those associates with himself. “He displayed a great hunger. He wanted to become Taoiseach and he became Taoiseach. He was a humble man in his own right. He was accessible to all people.”
During the darkest days for the party after its electoral humiliation in 2011, it almost became a cliché to remark that the unbroken line of Fianna Fáil leaders who served as Taoiseach would end with Martin. He now says Fianna Fáil is “within reach” of government.
His preferred way of achieving that goal is to head up a centre-left coalition, most likely with Fine Gael underpinning it in another confidence and supply deal.
Despite a willingness among some in his party to entertain thoughts of coalition with Sinn Féin, Martin has repeatedly ruled out such a prospect after the next election. When asked if he ever sees himself serving in office with Sinn Féin, he replies: “I can’t.”
But when pressed, he slightly elaborates. “I’m not saying never. I’m not living to 100, like. What I am simply saying is I don’t see it.”
Fine Gael, he claims, has ruled out a grand coalition with Fianna Fáil.
The path he has chosen to the Taoiseach’s office is, therefore, a very narrow one, but does he have the hunger of Reynolds to get what he wants?
“Yes, absolutely. And the patience.”
On that much, at least, he is clear.