Interview: Micheál Martin on restoring his party’s dominance

Fianna Fáil leader insists he will honour the deal supporting Fine Gael in Government

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin: ‘The national need comes first and we are clear that we don’t need further instability now in terms of the Government preparing itself for the negotiations on Brexit.’ Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin: ‘The national need comes first and we are clear that we don’t need further instability now in terms of the Government preparing itself for the negotiations on Brexit.’ Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 

Wednesday morning and Leinster House prepares for the set piece ritual of Leaders’ Questions, when the Taoiseach is pressed by the leaders of the Opposition parties.

Enda Kenny summons Minister for Arts Heather Humphreys to sit by him in the chamber, to ensure the television cameras record an ally at his side.

As Kenny takes his seat, Micheál Martin descends the stair behind him.

Martin makes to cross the floor to take his seat for the latest joust, but is called back by Kenny, albeit in a more respectful manner than that with which he summoned Humphreys.

The two briefly discuss changes to the commission of investigation into the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation before Martin finally makes his way across to his seat.

Minutes, later, he questions Kenny on the Central Statistics Office’s now ridiculed figures showing Irish GDP growth clocking in at a 26.3 per cent last year.

Kenny is in his seat only because of Martin’s acquiescence, outlined in the confidence and supply arrangement agreed between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to facilitate a minority Government.

Then, the pair were regularly in contact by telephone, speaking a number of times a week. That, however, has fallen away in the past number of weeks, say sources.

Now, the two men have informal chats, though their staff are in more regular touch. Following Wednesday’s chat, Kenny heard more calls from members of his parliamentary party to set out a timetable for his own departure.

In the last Dáil, Kenny commanded an unassailable majority. This time, Martin is often the one with the stronger hand.

Now with 44 TDs, Fianna Fáil scored 33 per cent in the Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll – heights unscaled since its pre-crash pomp. Martin’s stock, within and without his party, has never been higher.

He was cheered into the Dáil bar in recent weeks by grassroots members celebrating the election of some of the new intake of Fianna Fáil TDs.

Fine Gael fears

Many in Fine Gael fear that Martin is biding his time, waiting to pull down the minority Government when the polls point to the return of a Fianna Fáil-led government, minority or otherwise.

“That’s ridiculous,” says Martin. “The idea that we would consider running to the country a couple of months after the general election because of one opinion poll.

“It just illustrates the extraordinary impact that polling has on political narrative, political thought, political action. I can assure [Fine Gael] backbenchers that we are married to the principles underpinning the confidence and supply agreement.”

Fine Gael backbenchers are unlikely to be reassured, but Martin argues that opinion polls were wrong in the last election, shaping a narrative that FF was not a credible alternative.

“As far as we are concerned, opinion polls aren’t going to be the determining factor in any actions we take,” he says, though he seems genuine in his insistence that he is willing to see a deal through.

The magnitude of the United Kingdom’s impending exit from the EU underlines the need for stable government: “Yeah, I think it does underpin the necessity of a government.

“The national need comes first and we are clear that we don’t need further instability now in terms of the Government preparing itself for the negotiations on Brexit,” he told The Irish Times.

Nor will Fianna Fáil’s approach change when Fine Gael changes its leader, as long as policies stay on track. The principles are what matter, though Martin believes some Ministers are more enthusiastic than others.

“Quite a number of people in Fine Gael haven’t got their head around it and I think some of the source of instability that we have witnessed is a lingering sense within Fine Gael that this is an arrangement they are not happy with,” he says.

Describing a “terrible angst” among some Fine Gael Ministers and backbenchers, he hesitates when pressed for names, before mentioning the ones who do engage: Minster for Health Simon Harris and Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan.

Leo Varadkar, the favourite to succeed Kenny and the one seen as least enthusiastic during the coalition talks, is not mentioned, nor is Simon Coveney, Martin’s constituency rival in Cork South-Central.

Aside from copper-fastening his deal with Fine Gael, the other effect of Brexit, Martin believes, is that voters may “think twice about flirting with alternatives” that do not offer proper plans.

Does that mean Independents, in an Irish context?

“Yeah, that don’t have clear pathways to what they are proposing.”

Before the election, Fianna Fáil emphatically ruled out coalition with Fine Gael but the prospect of Martin supporting a minority government led by Kenny lingered for months .

Last Christmas, Martin insisted he was not “contemplating” such an outcome.

“It wasn’t our intention and in fact we tried everything to get a government, Fianna Fáil leading a minority government,” he says now.

Many Independents would dispute this, and believe Martin was never really genuine, believing that he wanted all along to be in the position that he now finds himself.

Not so, insists Martin, who says the decisions of the Social Democrats and the Green Party to disengage from talks were key.

“If they had opted to go into a broad, social democratic type government arrangement, that would have changed the whole ball park in my view.”

Read mood

Fianna Fáil was successful in the election because it correctly read a public mood that was not ready to be bought by a Fine Gael message dominated by continuing the recovery and tax cuts.

Martin is, in essence, a social democrat, although he pauses before defining himself.

“I would say I broadly am social . . . I am a republican who embraces social democratic principles.”

Does it then follow that his ideal government is a social democratic, left-of-centre one?

“My ideal government is a Fianna Fáil government that is strongly republican.

“One of the great successes of Fianna Fáil in this election was reconfiguring or bringing the narrative back to fairness and decency. You could call it a social democratic platform.

“There were like-minded views. The Social Democrats had similar views. They didn’t cost their proposals or anything like that, but nonetheless they had principles.”

So, too, does Labour. It has not gone unnoticed in Leinster House that Fianna Fáil and Labour have become somewhat friendlier since Brendan Howlin led his party into opposition.

Howlin recently said there are social democrats in Fianna Fáil and, even during the election, a senior Labour figure reflected that a left-of-centre government would become a real possibility if the numbers added up for Fianna Fáil, Labour and the Social Democrats.

There is a sense that it is a possibility Martin is very much alive to.

“The Labour Party is coming back,” he says of Howlin’s move back leftwards after the period in coalition with Fine Gael.

“Now we are getting explanations from the Labour Party why certain things happened in government.

“I’m not going to predict the outcome at this early stage. I do recall the 1992-1994 Fianna Fáil-Labour government, and it was a very effective and progressive government.

“Many people involved in that government couldn’t understand its break-up. There is potential there into the future.”

In a recent interview, Howlin used similar language and said the Fianna Fáil-Labour government led by Albert Reynolds was a “very good government, it was a progressive government”.

Martin still maintains, however, that Sinn Féin is unacceptable, even if Gerry Adams stands aside. So too are Fine Gael, though his public reasoning for this has changed from pre-election declarations that the policy gulf is too wide.

The confidence and supply agreement, which outlines broad policy targets, makes a formal mockery of something that has been apparent for years: Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael could work together in a heartbeat.

“There are a broader number of issues,” says Martin. “One is the policy difference, the other is the centre ground of Irish politics needing to be kept intact and not be surrendered to others. Not just Sinn Féin, but others.”

It is the first time he has essentially admitted that the centre must continue to be occupied by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, a view widely shared in both parties.

Sinn Féin in check

Having kept Sinn Féin in check and securing Fianna Fáil’s position as the largest Opposition party, Martin is seemingly unprepared to allow Adams and others dominate post-Brexit discourse on a united Ireland.

Criticising Sinn Féin’s instant call for a Border poll as crude and divisive, Martin says much more preparatory work needs to be done before there is a “reunification referendum”.

“The Scottish Nationalist Party developed a White Paper of 160-odd pages envisaging what an independent Scotland would look like. They went through tax, they went through political arrangements. They went through a whole load of things,” he said.

Now, Fianna Fáil will work on its own reunification paper: “For example, the subsidy between Britain and the North. How much is it? There are different figures. It could be £5 billion, it could be £9 billion. That’s not counting European money.

“How does one envisage dealing with that? Are we envisaging an all-Ireland, one parliament in Dublin?

“The National Health Service – how do you integrate that with the health service in the Republic? It’s a bit like Brexit. People propose it, not having thought through what was happening after Brexit. There is no plan B, there is no pathway.

“We don’t even know right now what the Brexiteers want. Exactly after that, Sinn Féin propose the exact same methodology for a united Ireland and I think it is irresponsible and it’s reckless.”

In the years when a rump Fianna Fáil of 20 seats sat across from the Fine Gael-Labour coalition with its elephantine majority, it was often said of Martin that he would be the first leader of his party never to be taoiseach.

That prediction looks likely to be disproved, just like the ones about Fianna Fáil’s demise.

“I’ll put it this way to you: I don’t think you can say Micheál Martin can never be taoiseach or is unlikely to ever be taoiseach,” he says, speaking of himself in the third person.

“But equally you can’t say he is likely to be either, because that is a matter for the Irish people and I respect the Irish people and I know that politics has many twists and turns.”

The mark of Martin’s leadership thus far has been has patience. From slow rebuilding in the first five years to his rejection of coalition with Fine Gael, even if it made him a rotating taoiseach, he has worked to restore his party’s dominance, with him in the taoiseach’s office.

His confidence and supply agreement gives him the power to trigger an election, at a time of his choosing, that could achieve that outcome.

But, in line with his willingness so far to play the long game, the sense is that he is not in any rush to do so just yet.

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