This morning, Micheál Martin will travel to Áras an Uachtaráin and inform the President that he wishes to resign his office. Later today Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Green TDs in the Dáil – in accordance with the Coalition agreement reached two and a half years ago – will elect Leo Varadkar as Taoiseach. Varadkar will name a new Cabinet – likely to be much the same as the old one, we are led to believe – and the big political switch will be complete. Martin will become Tánaiste and choose a government department to head, likely to be the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Martin has filled the office of Taoiseach at a tumultuous time. Having put together the historic – if eventually inevitable – coalition between the one-time bitter rivals, he came to the office in the midst of the pandemic which suspended normal social and commercial life, and normal politics.
He had a few missteps, but demonstrated courage too, not least in resisting the demands for incessant lockdowns from those who advocated a “zero Covid” strategy. Efficient management of the vaccination programme led to a remarkably rapid return to normal life earlier this year. Pandemic supports maintained social cohesion and enabled a rapid economic rebound.
Martin was less successful in tackling the seemingly intractable problems of housing and healthcare. Despite health spending remaining at near-pandemic highs, waiting lists have grown and long-awaited reforms move at a snail’s pace. Some progress was made on house building, but too slow to keep up with demand, and the problem seems likely to confront the second half of this administration as a politically existential challenge, threatening a wholesale abandonment of the old parties by a generation which feels locked out of the housing market, even as they pay extortionate rents. Under Martin’s watch, society has become more polarised on this issue.
On international affairs and on Northern Ireland, Martin has had a sure touch, and his Shared Island initiative may turn out to be a substantial legacy. It is the only forum where unionists are currently engaging with the Dublin government in practical and meaningful ways.
Notably, Martin has shown a temperament suitable to managing the coalition. He has shown patience and tolerance for his colleagues, understanding the key factor in maintaining the equilibrium of a government comprised of different political traditions is to understand the needs of his partners, and the pressures that they face from their own parties. As Irish politics continues to reorient itself against the background of an unpredictable world, Martin has been an able servant of the political centre. The job of ensuring that the centre can be innovative enough to find new solutions to the problems facing society, especially in housing, remains a work in progress, however.