The timing of Micheál Martin’s first address as Taoiseach to a Fianna Fáil ardfheis was fortuitous. As his tenure as leader of Government enters its final months there is a wide recognition that his stature has grown in office and his standing has probably never been higher.
Last week’s €11 billion giveaway budget, designed to help the people of the country cope with the cost of living crisis, was a good reflection of his priorities. It is a far cry from Martin’s first few months in office, when some senior party colleagues openly doubted his capacity to lead. There was even speculation that Martin might not even see out his allotted term and few believed he would continue to lead Fianna Fáil after he stepped down as Taoiseach. The mood inside and outside his party is very different now.
Martin showed during the Covid pandemic that he had the capacity to provide decisive leadership and he was able to boast in his ardfheis speech that Ireland’s record in dealing with it was better than that of the UK and most of our EU partners. His handling of the Northern Ireland protocol row and the Russian invasion of Ukraine further enhanced his reputation at home and abroad. Now as he comes to the end of his stint as Taoiseach there is little doubt that he will continue on as party leader and remain a senior member of the Government for the foreseeable future.
The enthusiastic response he received from the 2,500 delegates at the ardfheis over the weekend was a reflection of the fact that he is now regarded as a strong asset by the party. When he became leader in the midst of the financial crisis in 2011, Martin’s initial task was to ensure that Fianna Fáil simply survived. Having achieved that objective and defied the speculation that he would be the first party leader never to be Taoiseach, the objective now is to make the party relevant for the future. That will be no easy task, given the fact that successive polls have shown the party’s reliance on the support of older voters. In an effort to connect with younger people a new statement of the party’s aims and objectives was adopted by the ardfheis. Issues like climate change and biodiversity are now included in the aims of the party as is the fundamental one of protecting democracy in an age of populism and disinformation. However it will require real progress on the crucial issue of housing to convince younger voters that Fianna Fáil is relevant to their concerns.
The party’s great strength during its long decades of political dominance was its ability to come up with pragmatic solutions to the problems of the day. Showing that it still has the ability to come up with workable solutions to current problems, in a society that is changing dramatically, will be the key to the party’s survival.