Even in his home base of Cork, there have been rumblings of discontent about Taoiseach Micheál Martin’s ill-starred performance during his first two months in office.
caller to the popular Neil Prendeville Show on the local radio station RedFM summed up the local response to the Taoiseach’s troubled period at the helm in Government Buildings. “Micheál Martin hit the ground running, but the ground he hit was quicksand,” said the irate caller.
A poll carried out on the same station would have been particularly unsettling for the one-time ‘dauphin’ from Cork, who saw himself as the natural successor to Jack Lynch. Up to 62pc of those who responded said they wanted Leo Varadkar to return immediately to replace Martin as Taoiseach.
There is no doubt that since he took the top job, Martin has been an unlucky general, encountering a series of most unfortunate events.
He came to power in the worst health crisis in the State’s history and facing an economic outlook that is as gloomy as the bank crash of 2008.
Within days of the Government’s formation, he had his first man overboard with the sacking of Agriculture Minister Barry Cowen over a motoring offence that happened four years ago.
Then a second agriculture minister, Dara Calleary, and a European Commissioner, Phil Hogan, were lost over an Oireachtas Golf Society dinner in which Martin had no hand, act nor part.
“With the best-laid plans, it is the unknowns that trip you up,” his friend Cork city councillor Terry Shannon told Review this week. “Government is about handling things that just come up and bite you in the arse.”
The Golfgate crisis, where mostly retired political luminaries gathered for a knees-up in Clifden, apparently in breach of public health regulations, must have been particularly galling for Martin.
Here is a politician who never luxuriated in the baubles of high office. When he was elected Taoiseach by the Dáil, his family did not travel from Cork for the proceedings as they observed public health guidelines.
Martin’s marking of his 60th birthday in Cork this month was characteristically low-key and involved a lunch in the garden with his twin brother Pádraig.
The departure of two agriculture ministers and the resignation of an Irish EU Commissioner over a golf outing may have come out of the blue for Martin, but few would claim that all of the mishaps of the Taoiseach and his partners in government were all down to his misfortune.
His government has been beset by poor communications, mixed messaging, lack of cohesion, strained relationships at the top – and, to add to his troubles, Martin now leads a divided party.
One senior Fianna Fáil figure painted a picture that does not augur well for Martin’s long-term survival as a leader, and wondered if the Government itself can carry on much longer.
“There is a definite split in the party and it feels like that there are now two Fianna Fáils,” they said. “There’s the Fianna Fáil in government and there’s the Fianna Fáil in Leinster House who feel like they are in opposition, because they have just been abandoned.”
Already this week, there is speculation about who might take over from Martin as party leader.
Was it wise of Martin to fail to appoint Jim O’Callaghan as a cabinet minister, setting him up as a natural leader of a wide-ranging and vocal dissident faction in the party?
O’Callaghan, previously the justice spokesman, is hotly tipped to be the next leader at 7/4 with Paddy Power, with Michael McGrath some distance behind on 5/1. According to one scenario that is being floated, the contrasting pair could replace Martin as a kind of partnership.
A Fianna Fáil insider says: “McGrath is widely respected in the party as someone who is rock solid, but Jim has much more charisma, and there is a feeling that he could bring to Fianna Fáil the kind of allure that Leo brought to Fine Gael.”
Senior figures in Micheál Martin’s party may look enviously at Varadkar’s popularity in opinion polls, but they also see the Tánaiste as partly to blame for the Government’s rocky start.
Golfgate ‘a devastating blow’
Willie O’Dea, the former defence minister who was overlooked for a post in Martin’s government, says: “Golfgate was a devastating blow that could not have been anticipated, but the difficulties in the Government were already there.”
Another former cabinet minister says the success of a government depends on the leaders at the top being prepared to work together with a common purpose.
But Martin and Varadkar have clearly not gelled, and there seems to be a lack of basic trust between them.
“The problem seems to be that the three parties are operating separately with their own agendas and interests,” says O’Dea. “There is no sense that it is a cohesive government.”
He suggests that the Fine Gael leader has destabilised the Government.
“It seems to me that Varadkar is trying to create the impression that this government looks very poor in comparison to the government of which he was leader,” he says. “Consciously or unconsciously, that is being pushed.”
The rancour at the top seemed to reach a nadir during a cabinet meeting on August 18 when the Tánaiste argued that new Covid-19 restrictions were being hastily imposed without enough prior discussion.
Ministers were aghast when the angry Fine Gael leader told the cabinet: “If we keep doing business like this, we won’t be doing business for long.”
There had been previous disagreements when Varadkar expressed public doubts about the way travel restrictions and a list of ‘green list’ countries had been introduced.
Politicians with experience of coalition believe that open disagreements between a Taoiseach and a Tánaiste normally do not reach the cabinet table, but are ironed out at meetings beforehand.
In the Fine Gael-Labour coalition led by Enda Kenny, the Taoiseach and Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore averted any potential for open squabbles at cabinet by occasionally stopping a meeting and going for a walk together.
While some close political observers blame Varadkar for seeking to undermine Martin for his own political advantage, others put it down to Martin’s non-consensual approach to leadership. One close associate of Varadkar says: “Leo has had to put down a marker and make it clear that this is a coalition of two parties of similar size alongside the Greens. Decisions cannot just be pushed through without proper consultation.”
It is a sentiment that is echoed not only by the Fine Gael participants in government, but also by prominent figures in Martin’s party.
Critics of the Taoiseach say he tends to make decision within a tight circle of his close advisors, while backbench TDs and other ministers are frequently ignored.
One former government official says: “He has taken the game plan that he used to run the party for nine years, and has tried to transfer that into government. He has tried to micromanage a lot of policy himself, but you can’t do that when you are Taoiseach.”
According to his critics, Martin’s first big mistake came with his appointments.
Fianna Fáil took three of the ministries that have the potential to leave his party exposed: health, education and housing.
That may have shown political courage and a determination to solve some of the country’s most intractable problems, but was it a misjudgment to give the portfolios to TDs without any ministerial experience: Stephen Donnelly, Norma Foley and Darragh O’Brien?
A first-time TD, Foley as Education Minister has to grapple with the reopening of schools and the issue of calculated grades, while Donnelly in Health has been pressed into the frontline to help lead the country out of the pandemic.
One of the few benefits of the golf controversy has been that it deflected attention from his blundering performances in the preceding days.
In an interview with Virgin Media News, Donnelly adopted a tone of condescending spoofery that critics have dubbed “Stephensplaining”, when he compared the risks encountered in the pandemic to driving a car or children jumping on a trampoline.
The public was bewildered by the details of new restrictions, with Donnelly suggesting that only six people could attend indoor cultural events in theatres, while Micheál Martin’s own department suggested that the number would be 50.
TDs in the two main parties complain that they have been left all at sea with some of the new restrictions. Constituents are flooding them with queries about what the rules are, but it is not always easy to find out.
One backbench Fine Gael TD says: “In the last government, the Minister Simon Harris did a much better job of explaining to the public what was happening. A TD could catch a minister on the corridor in Leinster House if they had a query. That is now a lot more difficult.”
O’Dea says: “There was terrible confusion about some of the rules and new restrictions put up by the Government.
“When members of the Government who are supposed to be bringing in the regulations are confused and talking with different voices about what they mean, it’s tough on the guy who has to implement them on the ground.”
It is not just the lack of experience in key ministries that has emerged as a problem for Martin. There were early signs of a lack of cohesion between the three governing parties when the cabinet posts were announced.
While geography should not dictate the entire make-up of the cabinet, the absence in Martin’s initial cabinet of any minister from Donegal down to Kerry was seen as a glaring omission and an early sign of trouble.
One former government official says: “How did three government leaders appoint a cabinet between them without a single minister from the West? Normally, you’d get out a map and a marker to ensure that there was reasonable regional balance.”
Seasoned observers of the political scene believe that the leaders of the coalition will have to find some kind of rapport if the Government is to function effectively.
The last time there was comparable rancour was in the Fianna Fáil-Labour government of Albert Reynolds and Dick Spring in the early 1990s. There was often discord between them and when trust was shattered by the handling of the extradition of paedophile priest Brendan Smyth, the government fell apart.
The stability of the coalition is not helped by the wrangling in the third party, the Greens, with TDs disciplined for voting against the Government or abstaining.
Former cabinet minister Brendan Howlin said the Greens’ holding of a leadership contest just after the Government had formed was “bizarre”.
According to the Labour TD, it did not confer much authority on Eamon Ryan when half his party voted for his rival Catherine Martin.
Those who defend Micheál Martin believe that he has a much more difficult task than Varadkar had in devising a working strategy for dealing with the pandemic.
In March, the Fine Gael-led government shut the country down and delivered the simple message to stay at home.
Reopening the country while trying to stop the virus spreading is much more complicated – and in a sense these aims are contradictory.
Locking the country down the first time in a climate of fear exposed the country to enormous economic risks, but it was relatively straightforward.
After the number of cases fell and then rose again, reopening the country – including schools, colleges, sports facilities and pubs – is more difficult.
The virus created a climate of fear in which the population was prepared to be compliant. But fear has given way to frustration and anger and, as a result of the Golfgate controversy, politicians are feeling the force of that now.
The chemistry between Martin and Varadkar may not inspire confidence, but they have one thing in common: disdain for Sinn Féin and a desire to keep them out of office.
But there are many within Martin’s party who believe that going into coalition with Sinn Féin would have been the better option. As one party stalwart put it: “We would have held Sinn Féin’s feet to the fire while we were in government with them. Now we have left the field open to them.”
The gravest danger for Martin and Fianna Fáil in their present predicament is that they become an accident-prone party associated with disasters.
Dr Liam Weeks, lecturer in politics at University College Cork, says: “After the last Fianna Fáil government and now this one, people will question them. I am sure people will be comparing Micheál Martin to Brian Cowen, a leader who also found himself in government at the worst possible time.”
The Government may stabilise as the leaders realise that if it all goes wrong, they may all sink together.
But the decisions to be made will not become easier, with the potential for future unpopular lockdowns, the hurdle of the budget and the small matter of Brexit looming on the horizon.
With his party soaring in the polls, Varadkar might be tempted to pull the Government down, but would anybody thank him for bringing on an election in a pandemic, and how would it even be practical?
He knows that he will be Taoiseach again at the end of 2022 if he stays put, so why risk opening a window of opportunity for Sinn Féin?
A potential leadership challenger to Martin may also bide their time, unless his term turns out to be even more catastrophic than it is now. In all likelihood, when Martin finishes his stint, he will step down as leader.
As Fianna Fáil senator Malcolm Byrne puts it: “He has the capacity to be a good Taoiseach, but there are many challenges ahead. There is a lot of sympathy that he hasn’t had a day’s luck so far.”