Irish opposition leader Mícheál Martin and his Fianna Fáil party have endured years in the wilderness, punished for the country’s massive financial crisis — but he insists a return to government is at hand.
Mr Martin and his centrist party leads Leo Varadkar ahead of the election on February 8, with domestic problems overshadowing the prime minister’s so-far successful Brexit diplomacy.
Fianna Fáil once held a tight grip on government in Ireland, holding power from 1997 until 2011. Voters deposed the party in the aftermath of the global financial crash, when Ireland needed a humiliating international bailout and endured rampant unemployment and mass emigration in Dublin’s biggest test since the second world war.
Today Mr Martin and his party believe voters are ready to forgive it for steering Ireland into crisis. A Business Post survey at the weekend put support for Fianna Fáil at 26 per cent and Fine Gael at 23 per cent, in keeping with a recent Irish Times poll that had Mr Martin’s party at 25 per cent and Mr Varadkar’s at 23 per cent.
“We’re getting a warm response. People are talking to us. It’s clear on the doorsteps that people want change and they want a new government,” said Mr Martin as his party released its manifesto in Dublin.
Such remarks echo the Irish Times survey, which suggested 75 per cent of voters want a change of government after nine years of Fine Gael rule.
In the Midlands town of Longford — which endured some of the highest unemployment during the crisis — some said they were ready to give Mr Martin’s party another chance.
Enda Geraghty, an engineering company worker, said there was no point dwelling on the past — though he did not say where his vote would go. “It’s what’s going on today. It’s what people are getting into their bank accounts every week. It’s the cost of living. It’s jobs today — not what went on 10 years ago,” he said.
Victory would seal a remarkable return for Mr Martin, who turns 60 this year. He has been in parliament since 1989 and was in cabinet for 14 years before the financial crisis, first under Bertie Ahern and then his successor Brian Cowen. Gerard Howlin, an adviser to Mr Ahern, said: “Mícheál’s comeback — from 2011 when Fianna Fáil almost disintegrated — is a political phenomenon.”
Mr Martin, leader since 2011, accepted that his party faced a long spell in opposition and played a long game to rebuild it.
He publicly apologised in 2012 for Fianna Fáil’s role in the crash and supported a Brussels treaty that year to impose fiscal discipline on member states. By putting new representatives in charge of local organisations, the party reactivated its grass roots support. The first glimmer of hope was in 2014, when Fianna Fáil won the most council seats in local government.
Mr Martin backed Ireland’s introduction of same-sex marriage and abortion, putting him on the winning side in two landmark referendums to liberalise social laws. With more than half of his own MPs opposing abortion, he allowed a free “conscience vote” on the topic to minimise internal divisions.As economic recovery set in, he struck a parliamentary voting pact in 2016 to prop up the minority Fine Gael government from opposition. He also backed Mr Varadkar on Brexit as risks grew of a no-deal UK crash out from the EU. The pact, prolonged in late 2018 due to Brexit uncertainty, ensured political stability in Dublin during tense talks with Britain over the future of the Northern Ireland border.
The stance gave freedom of manoeuvre to the taoiseach but also meant that Mr Martin could present his party as a pillar of the national consensus on Brexit.
“We’re probably the most constructive opposition party in many decades,” Mr Martin said when asked whether voters could be convinced to put their faith in the party again after its last government ended in disaster. “Our behaviour and performance in opposition on many issues I think has given reassurance to people.”
Ireland’s economy is still booming, with record numbers of people at work at 2.33m — an important calling card for Fine Gael. Mr Varadkar insists Fianna Fáil cannot be trusted to manage the economy and is likely to intensify such attacks.
But economic growth has brought its own problems for Mr Varadkar, who is battling public disquiet at hospital overcrowding and the lack of affordable housing and childcare.
Mr Martin insists his manifesto presents “a prudent, responsible and reasonable” plan to boost housebuilding, the health service and maintain order in the public finances. He has also signalled that his party would hold back more than €1bn from a potential €11bn pot that finance ministry forecasts suggest will be available for tax and spending measures in the next five years — an effort to present him as a leader who would resist a return to spendthrift economics.
And while Fianna Fáil’s weakest spot is Dublin, a farmer revolt over low beef prices has undermined Mr Varadkar’s party in rural areas. David Whelehan, of the 13,000-member Beef Plan Movement protest group, said: “There is a major dissatisfaction with how this government has performed as regards rural Ireland. People feel like they’ve been left behind.”
Those who suffered in the crisis are dubious. Phyllis Grimes, an office manager in Longford who was jobless for four years, remains unconvinced by Mr Martin even though she believes he is an “honest” leader.
“I couldn’t trust Fianna Fáil again after the way they led the country before. It’s too soon for me,” she said, clutching a takeaway coffee on her mid-morning break. “I certainly wouldn’t vote for them because they destroyed the country before and I was one of those people who suffered.”
Mr Howlin counselled that Mr Martin’s lead was significant but not unassailable, pointing out that many people are still unwilling to overlook the party’s role in the crash.
“Anyone who has children who emigrated, anyone who is still in negative equity, or who spent several years in negative equity — if you have that experience you may no longer be shouting but you certainly haven’t forgotten and you may not have forgiven Fianna Fáil.”