Martin, Varadkar, McDonald: three leaders with different challenges

Sinn Féin enjoying wave of support as Taoiseach rotation looms for Coalition partners

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Taoiseach Micheál Martin following their visit to the Treaty, 1921: Records from the Archives exhibition at Dublin Castle. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

First day of a new year, time to look ahead. We’re all fed up of Covid, so let’s try look beyond it into the middle distance: as the party leaders enjoy a few days’ downtime, what are the key challenges that face them in 2022? And what might pop up to bite them?

First, though do not begrudge them – or other politicians – a break this Christmas. They devote practically their whole lives to public service. The long hours, the pressure to make decisions constantly, the separation from their families, the relentless scrutiny, the sheer physical and mental stamina required to do their jobs are often forgotten. Sure, nobody asked them to do it. But somebody has to. So, politicians of all parties and none, enjoy what’s left of your Christmas holidays.

But enough of the Christmas truce. We’ll be playing football with the Boche in no-man’s land next. What faces the leaders of the three major parties next year?

This time next year Micheál Martin will no longer be Taoiseach. The date for the handover of the office is December 15th. The navigation of that transition and its management within his own party will grow in importance as the year progresses. Martin will hate this: he will insist that he is concentrating on the “substance” (one of his favourite words) of the job he has – and being Taoiseach, by anyone’s standards, is a pretty all-consuming role. But as Martin knows, doing the necessary politics is part of that job and managing this unprecedented process is very much part of the necessary politics.

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He will also have to manage the future of his own role in Fianna Fáil. Despite his understandable insistence to the contrary – maintained because when a leader indicates he intends to step down, his authority drains away like bathwater – most of his own TDs don’t expect him to lead the party into the next election. It follows that he will step down as leader at some point between this time next year and early 2025 at the latest. Like Tony Blair, Martin has paid little heed to the sensitivities of his parliamentary party, but has always been at least a few steps ahead of them politically. Like Blair, that can’t go on forever. And while all his potential successors might seem by turns lightweight, unproven or unsuitable, isn’t that always the way with a long-serving leader? It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. Until they take it. The cemeteries are full of indispensable men.

Second chance

Now consider the inverse of all this: by next year Leo Varadkar will be taoiseach. Not having Martin’s workload, he will devote much of his year to preparing for that. Being rather less pious, he will embrace that with gusto. Fate has given Varadkar what many people don’t get in life or in politics: a second chance at something big. If he does not make a conspicuous success of being taoiseach the second time, he will assuredly not be given a third go at it.

Varadkar will be conscious of the need to hit the ground running this time next year and demonstrate that things are different with him in charge. But as the current Taoiseach pointed out last week, just because the leader of the Government changes doesn’t mean that its programme does. The Coalition will still be judged on its success at tackling housing, health, childcare and other pressing needs in people’s lives, whilst managing the pandemic and dealing with the pressures that 2022 throws at it, such as Brexit and the rising costs of living.

Varadkar still retains an ability to speak to the Irish people with a directness and facility that few politicians have ever managed. But his government will be judged, like all others, on its record and its plans for the future. Communication only matters if you have something that matters to say.

Twin tasks

For Mary Lou McDonald, the year brings twin tasks, as befits the leader of a party active in the two jurisdictions. In Northern Ireland, the party is on course to become the largest party in Stormont in the Assembly election due by early May, and so assume the First Minister’s role – an achievement that would be of enormous symbolic importance to the party and simultaneously dislocating for unionists.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald. In opinion polls, 47 per cent of those aged 25-34 said they would vote for Sinn Féin. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

In the South, there is no election on the horizon. Thank God, say Sinn Féin’s opponents.

Writing in these pages last week, Anne Harris divined a sense that young people are preparing to give an “almighty wallop” to the old establishment parties that have suborned their interests to those of the more comfortable classes, the propertied, tenured, Covid-averse middle-aged and over. She is not the only one; whitewatering downstream from culture to politics, my colleague Una Mullally feels it too. Look at the opinion polls and it’s pretty plain: 47 per cent of those aged 25-34 say they will vote for Sinn Féin.

McDonald’s challenge is to harness this great wave of support and convert it into concrete political commitment that does not crumble either in advance of an election when faced with scrutiny, or afterwards when confronted with the necessary compromises of politics and power. Is Sinn Féin going to have a house for everyone who wants one, in a place they like, at a price they can afford? No, they’re not. You can’t be a government-in-waiting unless you can show you will take difficult decisions and disappoint some people. If responsibility comes with power, with the promise of power comes the need for clarity.

Of course, compared with their rivals, this is a very good problem for Sinn Féin to have. But it will require McDonald’s thoughtful attention, all the same.