Micheál Martin’s appearance on last Friday’s The Late Late Show was eagerly anticipated by many Fianna Fáil supporters. Since the earliest opportunity after the February's General Election, it was clear that the preference of Micheál Martin was to enter a coalition with FG and others.
Insider was informed by an attendee at the first Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting, following that election, that this was the course of action the leader advocated, and while there were murmurings among some, the determination of Micheál Martin was to prevent these murmurings from developing into something more coordinated. Off course, the onset of the Covid-19 crisis assisted in limiting any type of party upheaval.
Since then, we have seen a coordinated and protracted strategy - described sullenly by one local FF representative as careful choreography - aimed to give the impression that there were significant obstacles to overcome, but the national interest necessitated entering coalition talks. It is like watching a movie where we know from the start how the movie will end but still sit through it.
A return to power?
While obviously for Fianna Fáil, 2011 was the lowest point in the party's history, things currently are only marginally better. Fianna Fáil had never previously experienced such a protracted spell on the opposition benches and the complacent expectation was that the 2020 election would bring about a return to power as the Dáil’s biggest party.
Yet the expected result did not come to pass, and those in senior roles in Fianna Fáil must shoulder the blame. Micheál Martin consoles himself with the thought that, despite losing several seats and trailing Sinn Féin in the popular vote, the party is still the biggest grouping within the Dái. This is extreme straw clutching.
'Martin's greatest challenge rests in ensuring the next government is clearly seen as one for which Fianna Fáil brings about the type of changes people clearly voted for last February'
Disregard then what Martin says. When Ryan Tubridy suggested to him that he did not want to be remembered as the only Fianna Fáil leader never to become Taoiseach, he grinned through his answer - a grin this Insider believes both highlighted his innermost thoughts and belied the content of his answer. This is not how Martin wants to be remembered.
Coalition with Fine Gael?
Insider understands that, what the party membership will be asked to do in the coming weeks, will be portrayed as giving their opinion on a programme for Government formulated in the best interests of the nation. However, the reality is that many within Fianna Fáil view the upcoming ballot on entering coalition as a vote on the future existence of the party just a few years short of the centenary of its foundation. Should the leader fail to recognise this in the forthcoming ballot, it is doomed to fail.
He must convince Fianna Fáil supporters that the next Government will take the State in a totally different direction to the previous one and that Fianna Fáil is the catalyst for that change. His greatest challenge rests in ensuring the next government is clearly seen as one for which Fianna Fáil brings about the type of changes that people clearly voted for last February.
'Can Martin bring this type of radical thinking to the next government? His political career to this point suggests otherwise'
The next government must provide solutions on the issues of housing and healthcare, and ignore the limitations of public sector inertia that stifles change, muddles along, and maintains the status quo. Something of Fianna Fáil’s history that immediately springs to mind is the decision made in 1967 by the Education Minister, Donagh O’Malley, when he announced universal free access to secondary education - a decision made without any discussion or prior knowledge of officials within the department of Finance.
Is Micheál Martin the man for the job?
Can Martin bring this type of radical thinking to the next government? His political career to this point suggests otherwise. He has, in the past, been criticised for the establishment of quangos and forums to decide on delicate issues under his control as a Minister.
If he wants this process to succeed, he needs to adapt a less cautionary approach. He must show greater determination and, rather than threading carefully, he needs to display an irreverence towards the government of the past decade and highlight how Fianna Fáil will provide the change the electorate clearly signalled - and he should have started that offensive last Friday night.
Should Fianna Fáil enter government and these types of changes fail to materialise, the party may not get the opportunity to celebrate its centenary in 2026.