Brendan Hoban: Micheál is now Fianna Fáil’s greatest asset                    

Western People 15.8.23.

RTÉ. We love them and we loathe them. We are proud of them and embarrassed by them. We are humiliated when we see the mess they can get themselves into as with the recent debacle over payments to ‘stars’. And then they turn around and produce compelling and opinion-changing documentaries as (in the last few weeks) Alan Gilsenan’s absorbing and moving The Seven Ages of  Noel Browne. And the four programmes Once Upon A Time in Northern Ireland, that served to open an instructive window into the nightmare years of the great Troubles through an eye-opening  commentary of the people who lived through them.

The latter could not have come at a more appropriate time as we enter the run-in to the general election now expected not later than early 2025. With the odds on Sinn Féin to hold power or, at worst, to share it in coalition with Fianna Fáil, the reality of a seismic change in Irish politics is beginning to dawn.

While Taoiseach Leo Varadkar believes that the present coalition has ‘a good chance’ of retaining power – after all, you would hardly expect him to throw in the towel more than a year early? – there’s a growing perception that the Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael tweedledum/tweedledee axis is well past its sell-by date. Virtually indistinguishable from one another in terms of policy, in effect, the protracted era of two parties more-or-less swapping power between themselves for the full course of the full century since independence came to a symbolic conclusion with the two traditional parties coalescing to form (with the Greens) the present government.

Now that the Civil War, on which the great political division of the last century found a shaky basis, has drifted into the far recesses of our memory, the palpable perception is that almost any new configuration of parties will do, even the long reviled and, for many, the spine-chilling prospect of Sinn Féin on its own in government.

That Sinn Féin is preparing for government by making itself more compatible with the traditionally conservative Irish electorate is clear from a number of factors. In particular, Sinn Féin has begun a process of divesting itself of the really scary bits of their former scary policies – as with their decision to jettison their long opposition to the Special Criminal Court.

That process also includes Sinn Féin at every opportunity burnishing its reputation vis-a-vis their own view of themselves as architects of the Good Friday Agreement. At the same time not shedding the freedom fighter image in deference to those said to be lurking in the background, Sinn Féin is moderating its involvement in the years long campaign of death and mayhem in the Troubles by diverting attention to its popular public triumphs like visits to the White House and mixing with the British royals. Dumping electorally suicidal policies and posturings will continue apace. All the while, as the skilled politicians they are, repeating again and again predictable mantras about the housing crisis, the cost of living and whatever the populist agenda seems to demand.

A primary consideration is whether they can deliver what will give them sufficient credibility to get themselves over the line – actually apologising for their role in the Troubles, facing the problem of appointing those with difficult personal histories to sensitive ministerial positions, etc – will to a large degree determine their progress.

While Mary Lou and Sinn Féin (SF) have the ball at their feet and theirs is an election to lose, on the other hand, for Micheál Martin and Fianna Fáil (FF) it’s an election full of promise. If SF blow their big chance (with what they see as their political destiny now imminent) then the present coalition will be returned, even possibly with FF and Martin shuffling Fine Gael and Varadkar out of pole position. If SF needs FF as a junior partner – and opinion polls on the acceptability of a FF/SF coalition already run at 39% with the present government at 36%, Martin will be trusted to keep a weather eye on SF on that coalition.

FF’s trump card is Micheál Martin. Almost single-handedly he has brought FF back from the sticks of Irish political life. Even though he has led them into an historic first coalition with the traditional enemy (FG), no serious contender has emerged to threaten his domination of FF. If the old war-house of national politics is to be re-energised, Martin seems the lone hope of FF. And to cap it all, he has emerged in the latest opinion poll with the top approval rating at 44% of any party leader.   

And even though he was, in the public mind, associated with the bad, old, recent days of FF, his personal gifts and sure touch as Taoiseach have allowed him to emerge as a kind of elder or father-figure, someone who has seen it all and brings a wise, sensible, trustworthy, dependable, sure-footed voice to the table. Martin is in the happy position of being trusted by the electorate and in some way needed by every party.

By comparison, Leo Varadkar and Fine Gael seem almost to have lost their way. A perception of being too long in office. Too many TDs going ‘over the side’ into retirement. Too much kite-flying. Leo, with his lavish portfolio of personal gifts so evident in the even recent past, no longer dominating the conversation. FG seem weary of the long grind of politics. Almost looking forward to a break from an extraordinary and historic period of success in order to get a second wind.

Yes, it’s all to play for. We live in interesting times. 

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