A Taoiseach in Name Only

Nobody told Micheál Martin that Katherine Zappone was to get the big job in New York until it arrived at Cabinet, in the form of a behind the scenes agreement amongst Fine Gael Ministers, and the hapless Taoiseach was bounced into going along with it. In the immediate aftermath, he had the look of a small boy who had fallen on his arse and just wanted everybody to forget about it. “Not ideal”, he said, “but sure, we move on now”.

We did not move on. And, as has been the case for his entire Premiership, the Taoiseach was a complete passenger in the events of last week. Not once could he be said to have shaped events. If Zappone was eventually pushed, it was not by his hand – it was because her candlelight supper in the Merrion Hotel imperilled the career of Leo Varadkar. That her appointment damaged Mr. Martin was never a concern for either Zappone or Fine Gael. But the very moment it threatened the golden blueshirt, she had to go.

Glenna Lynch, one of our smartest and most criminally under-platformed commentators, made a smart observation this week:

Since he entered office, a little over a year ago, Mr. Martin has occupied the big chair he has dreamed of, since entering politics in the 1980s. But not once has it even looked like he has any of the power that his office is supposed to bring him. On issue after issue, he has been told what to do by others. NPHET, as a report from Trinity College revealed this week, were basically handed the reigns of the country to develop and lead the Covid response. Those of us who jokingly called Tony Holohan the shadow Taoiseach were, it turns out, much closer to the truth than even we imagined.

In Government, it is difficult to discern a single obviously Fianna Fáil priority which has gotten any attention. Part of that is because under Mr. Martin, Fianna Fáil does not really have obvious priorities, beyond keeping Mr. Martin in office. But part of it, too, is that Fine Gael in particular have run rings around him, giving him the chairmanship of the cabinet, but making most of the decisions themselves before the meetings even begin.

From the cabinet, leaks pour to such an extent that you could barely call them leaks. They are more like waves. Try, for a moment, to recall any single decision which Mr. Martin has been credited with making, in his time in office. You will find none. Simon Coveney decides things. Simon Harris decides things. Mr. Martin, if he ever does make a decision (which is not certain), gets it announced as “the Government has decided”. The Fine Gael strategy to make it seem as if they, and not Mr. Martin, are running the country has succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

This has been, make no bones about it, a hopeless Premiership. Comfortably the weakest and most ineffectual in the century long history of the state. The phrase “in office but not in power” may as well have been invented for Micheál Martin.

It is, now, almost certainly too late to turn it around. The fact is that a year of bumbling and fumbling has left him, and his party, so weak in the polls that they now have no leverage whatever in Government. Look at those opinion polls: What is Mr. Martin to do, if Fine Gael want to keep making him look like a fool? Call an election? Fine Gael would only be delighted. So, too, would the voters. It would not end well for Mr. Martin.

No, he is stuck, in a chair he always wanted, unable to do anything at all with it except periodically come before the cameras, incline his head, put on his best sincere frown, and mumble a bit about the progress which has been made.

But he is not running the country. He never has been. And, from the position in which he, and his party, now find themselves, he never will be.

Those Fianna Fáil members who voted to enter Government, if they have any self awareness at all, must feel like some eejits.

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