When Harry met Micheál: Mixing old school FF with ‘new wave’

Party leader shows his years of election experience on a campaign visit to Kerry

Irish Times political correspondent Harry McGee spends the day on the hustings with Micheál Martin in Killarney and encounters a sense of confidence from the Fianna Fáil faithful in the Kingdom. Video: Bryan O'Brien

 

The winter storms have taken their toll. Near Rosscahill on the Lakes of Killarney, half a dozen rowing boats have sunk in the water, only their prows visible above the surface.

It’s still bitter. The skies are grey and threatening. The icy winds swoop down from the snow-capped McGillycuddy’s Reeks. They sweep across the lake. They seep right in behind your marrow.

Meanwhile, 2km up the road, in the town of Killarney, a man is stepping his way gingerly, remembering the carnage his people suffered five years ago.

Micheál Martin’s tour has arrived in Killarney. Here, as elsewhere, this was a scene of political Armageddon five years ago. The party was once the kingpin here but was shut out completely by an incandescent electorate.

Zero seats out of six in two constituencies. Nor were there grace notes. It all ended badly with a bitter valedictory speech from John O’Donoghue who noted, with irony, that he had procured the money for the building that hosted both the count and his political demise.

In 2016, the weather may be hostile but the reception is no longer arctic. The locals are not exactly putting palms at Micheál Martin’s feet but there is no longer any criticism, or shunning.

He’s a professional politician with a lot of miles on the clock and he knows how to canvass. There was a time for humility but nowadays Martin hits the canvass trail like the captain of an underdog team leading his team on to the pitch.

They follow a familiar journey of hope, the no-hoper non-league teams. The odds might be stacked against them but they are convinced they will somehow spring a shock result.

Renewal

But the only one who could really be leader was a member of the ancien régime. Martin speaks about “new politics”. Since coming out of its period of penance, some of Fianna Fáil’s new politics has looked suspiciously like old politics, with a hardening of opposition over the past 12 months.

It has somehow parlayed its way to opposing measures it itself was responsible for introducing, namely property taxes and water charges over the past 12 months. Martin himself also presents contrasting faces. On a personal level, he is courteous and engaging. Like most people who are politicians by instinct, he can spend all day happily shaking hands and making small talk.

Most people, including rivals, will say of him personally that he is “decent”. He is wholly untainted too which is saying something in the context of some of his predecessors.

On a one-to-one level, people are welcoming to him. The hostility of 2011 is wholly absent.

The other side of Martin is the argumentative side. He is incredibly partisan when it comes to the cut and thrust of politics. That makes a nettle out of him when he is debating.

He can bicker and nitpick like no other, sometimes to the point of being off-putting. That has its downside but, that said, he is good when it comes to the slugfests of televised debates, where he tends to best his rivals.

The first stop today is St Oliver’s National School on the Ballycasheen Road. Martin and a small entourage of handlers, press people and local Fianna Fáilers, including general election candidate Norma Moriarty, arrive at about 9.30am to be greeted by principal Rory D’Arcy.

In the course of the next hour, we bear witness to a tour-de-force performance. But it doesn’t come from Martin but from D’Arcy, a tall and talkative Sligo man with more than a dollop of charisma. He has responsibility for an enormous school, with almost 800 pupils from 47 different nationalities (many parents are working in the tourism industry).

His ideas are progressive and he has a fair line in inspiration. The school has got green flags for environmental projects – D’Arcy is exploring the idea of having hedge school-type classes outside on a set day each week to bring pupils closer to nature. D’Arcy knows every single one of the hundreds of pupils by name.

Great hope

Martin is impressed by all he sees and will make several references to it later on in interviews. He meets the junior infants (who sing for him) and he is also serenaded by the school choir. On a corridor there is a photograph of a considerably younger Martin visiting here when minister for education two decades ago. “I still had hair then,” he forlornly notes.

D’Arcy brings him to a large fish tank in the assembly hall. Inside is an array of exotic fish, 47 in total. Each fish represents a nationality. The children are told the oxygen that constantly bubbles up to the top represents all the good thoughts that surface in St Oliver’s each day. “You will notice there is no Nemo there,” says D’Arcy referring to to the distinctive striped fish from the Disney children’s movie. “They are just too expensive.”

Martin’s group then moves on to the Killarney Avenue Hotel where there is a coffee morning organised by the Soroptimist women’s group. Martin makes a short speech and then works the tables among the 200 or so present.

Moriarty, the candidate in this part of the county, is from Waterville but is a teacher in Kenmare.

A councillor since 2014, like a lot of Fianna Fáil’s younger candidates, the past is a different country for her. In setting out her stall, she instead majors on the future and the fact she is a new candidate.

Senator Ned O’Sullivan is also there. He is from Listowel and has the literary bent and turn of phrase that’s peculiar to the north Kerry town.

“We’re going to do well in Kerry,” he proclaims. “I feel it in my waters.” He says that the people are gravitating back to Fianna Fáil. With a flamboyant sweep of his arms, he concludes: “They are not putting their arms around us, I wouldn’t go that far. They are certainly coming back to us.”

Optimistic

Tom Fleming

Then it’s back out under dolorous skies that can’t decide between rain and sleet. Into a military quick-step, Martin goes down the street, pumping the arms of the few who are braving the elements. There is one quick visit in and out of a gift shop. Not a great spontaneous decision. It is populated with plenty of red-bearded leprechauns but no live Kerry voter.

Finally, we huddle under an arch near a battery of Michael Healy-Rae posters and Martin does a short interview that veers between combative and charm. He returns again and again to two themes: what he sees as the commentariat obsession with opinion polls and its over-emphasis on the horse race, or “coalitionology” to use his own clunky phrase.

But does he not have a cheek preaching to Fine Gael after his party’s last abysmal stint in power?

“We are not preaching to anybody,” he protests. “We are outlining what we believe is a fair and more decent society. We believe Fine Gael have a different attitude. They want to look after the wealthier in society.

Michael Noonan has thrown his figures up in a heap and there have been flip-flops all over the place.

“Why? Because he sees that our focus is the correct focus,that their message is out of step with where the public are.

“They recognise that belatedly and they are scrambling now to redress that imbalance.”

But is he not being disingenuous when he gives out about opinion polls, when political scientist Tim Bale has warned Fianna Fáil about being too over-reliant on crowing about the results from the 2014 local elections.

New generation

Anne RabbitteMary Butler

Is not O’Sullivan’s prediction of two seats out of five in Kerry fantasy stuff?

“Not at all,” he replies. “This election is wide open. I have sounded a cautious note to all commentators about opinion polls.

“I think it’s well founded in terms of what’s happened in the UK [where all polls got the general election result wrong]. I have not had a satisfactory explanation from anybody as to why I should ignore all that.

“That dictated the nature of the debate in Britain . . . We need to be careful not to fall into the same trap that the polls do not determine everything.”

Back down near Ross Castle, we return to the submerged boats. Doubtless, soon they will be refloated and rowed again. But only later in the spring will we know how many will actually make it to land.