Will Micheál Martin make a difference?

Eoin O’Malley

Now that Fianna Fáil has chosen Micheál Martin as leader a week before an election campaign, can he make much of an impact at this stage? Most research suggests leaders have a marginal effect. But this might say more about the research than it does about leaders. Few would argue that Tony Blair did not have an impact on the UK Labour Party, and that the change from Tony Blair to Gordon Brown wasn’t important. But how did Blair have an impact? His main impact was that he changed his party’s policies radically – so whether we can say it was his leadership that mattered or the policies is debatable. Except of course, that it’s likely that we would not have seen those changed policies without the leader.

It is also the case that when we evaluate a party’s policies that we do so through the leader. If a party had a policy articulated through a bland, unattractive leader the message might not get through in the same way when a telegenic and articulate leader is selling it.

The problem for Fianna Fáil is that it does not have a great deal of time to reposition itself in policy terms, so that route is not really open to it. He hardly can disassociate the party from the policies of the last few years. If the policies were right and it was just Brian Cowen was not the right mouthpiece, then he might make a difference. His ‘radio-silence’ in the last few years means fewer people have formed an impression of him than they have of Lenihan say, so the leaders’ debates could be crucial.

He could also take control of the party organisation. Candidate selection and other seemingly technical electoral issues will have an impact on the number of TDs returned. Many activists and supporters might be looking for any excuse and scapegoating Cowen could give Fianna Fáil supporters the excuse they want to vote for the party.

11 thoughts on “Will Micheál Martin make a difference?

  1. The bottom line with Martin is that he has been in cabinet for the past 13 years and bears part of the collective responsibility for the bankruptcy of the state. If the opposition push this line there is little Martin can do to defend himself. The less responsibility he takes, the more he effectively admits to have been asleep at cabinet.

    I must say again though that there is complete hypocrisy in how the different players who contributed to the state’s demise have been treated. There are bankers & regulators who have been lampooned & ostracised to the hilt. I am not for one second defending them, however we have had nobody from the political sphere (besides B Cowen) who has faced any such derision. When AIB wanted to replace Eugene Sheehy in the top job of the bank with Colm Doherty on the basis that they believed him to be the best man for the job and had come from its profitable Capital Markets Division, it was steadfastly opposed by the Government on the basis that he had been on the board of the bank during it’s reckless years. He was an insider and was tainted by his board membership. No such dilemma for Fianna Fail though as they elect to be their new leader a man who was on the board of Ireland Inc for 13 years, a board who has presided over the ruination of the state, and from a party political perspective, the ruination of the Fianna Fail party. I have not seen or heard any record of him ever publicly voicing disagreement with any of his cabinet’s disastrous policies.

    Let’s be honest though, we are not dealing with the most astute electorate in the world, so anything is possible. I’ll throw a tenner on Michael Martin to be next Taoiseach to hedge my bets.

  2. He is level headed , suave, engaging, and more inportant he is much more personally imposing than Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmour!

    It’s already estimated on RTE radio today that he’ll add 6 % or thereabouts to the Fianna Fail national vote.

    More important he will bring the FF vote up by anything up to ten per cent in places like Carlow-Kilkenny where his leadership will now re-elect both John McGuinness T.D. and Bobby Aylward TD.
    Sinn Fein have 15% there , however their policy of rejecting the 85 billion bail-out will stop them in theor tracks.
    Labour will still do OK but not as well as heretofore polled, Fine Gael could drop significantly in the virtual absense of Enda Kenny these days , or indeed a better liked leader.
    All in all today was a big day in the recovery of Fianna Fail.
    ( It woukld be better for the party if Brian Cowen retired completely and didn’t run in the election at all)

  3. Define what you mean by making a difference? Are you asking will he keep FF in power then the answer is almost certainly no. Will he make a difference in the sense of bringing up the vote and keeping them ahead of Sinn Fein then it is possible.

    I would share Eoin’s doubts about the debates. While the data may indeed be flawed I think it is clear the effect is marginal. The recent example in the UK when Nick Clegg did far better than expected in the debates but this then failed to materialise in the form of a substantially increased vote only serves to highlight this fact.

  4. I’ll be interested to see how Martin responds to Fine Gael and Labour during the campaign when they put the spotlight onto Martin’s involvement in the government since 1997.

    How can he claim to be ‘new’ Fianna Fáil when he is the personification of ‘old’ Fianna Fáil.

    I’m sure Fine Gael have been dusting down their ‘Send in the Clowns’ video from 2007 where Martin pleads like a child that he isn’t responsible for the mess when he was Minister for Health.

  5. I think he will make a difference, Jonathan , a big difference in the country constituencies , especially the Cork ones, but not in Dublin.
    This is why he has to be very careful in choosing his Deputy Leader in particular who simply has to be Dublin-based.
    But can he leave Brian Lenihan in Finance? Definitely not, he is central to the fatal decision to guarantee Anglo-Irish Bank.
    I think that therefore the Lenihans are going to be the big losers in all of this.

  6. Dont know who this Dublin based TD is going to be exactly. Barry Andrews might lose his seat, Hanafin challenged him in the leadership, Lenihan is ruled out by your logic, Carey has a fight to hold on to his seat, Chris Andrews has no profile, where is the candidate coming from??

  7. As Jonathan implies, if Eoin’s question is ‘Do leaders make a difference to the outcome of elections?’, then the answer is ‘very rarely indeed’. The election needs to be really close and the difference between the perception of the leaders needs to be pretty large. Neither condition is likely to apply in a few weeks time. However, if the question is ‘Will a small number of FF TDs be returned who might otherwise not have been?’, then the answer is ‘possibly’. It depends on what you think FF would have got if Cowen had remained as leader. If you think they really would have got 8%, or even 14%, and they win 20-25% then the change will have had a coattails effect. However, if you think that the polls have been underestimating FF support (or the number of FF TDs returned – perhaps because of local factors that are difficult to capture), then the chances are that his coattails effect will be very small. My guess is that three or four FF TDs in the 31st Dail might have something to thank him personally for.

  8. Both Eoin and Robert have helped define the question more narrowly from a political science point of view. I have stated elsewhere that in a straight choice between Cowen and Martin the latter might be worth a very significant premium on his rival. But should we not consider the relative merits of Martin versus Enda Kenny as an additional element of this? Granted this is not looking like a traditional election where the merits and demerits of the two main party leaders count for something. But Enda Kenny continues to get almost every aspect of strategy wrong: today we had the latest example where he defensively batted away suggestions of a three-way debate in favour of a five way contest. For him to hold such a position is not that surprising given his apalling facility with the English language and singular failure to communicate his message. But he has placed his party on the backfoot almost immediately the election has been called. Heaven knows what he might do in the course of live tv debates. We can argue about the relative importance of these debates; in truth they rarely make that much of a difference, for all the attention paid to the 1960 US Presidential debate between Kennedy and Nixon. But in a context where communicating your ‘brand’ effectively in a short sharp campaign is important, Kenny may well be vulnerable. Fine Gael insiders are more than aware of his strengths and weaknesses at this point and I imagine they will try to minimize his radio and television interviews to those that are absolutely necessary. They will be looking at best for a ‘no score draw’ across the board in television debates,where viewers are bored to death, whatever format is eventually agreed upon. But watch out for Harold MacMillan’s infamous ‘events, dear boy’!

  9. I believe unfortantly, Fianna Fail will throw a few surprises come election day. There are two main reasons for that. One, I don’t see any real alternative party in a strong enough position to convince the voter of any new reform. Sadly, I think Fine Gael is simply a continuation of what we have been subjected to for the past decade. I get the impression from Enda Kenny, that his party has done a flip flop on the EU/IMF deal. I also believe that they are so hungry to get into government, they are scared to make any pre-election promises of any radical changes to the deal that was brokered by a government that has bankrupt our country. Labour, on the other hand are simply not good enough to take command. Eamon Gilmore has been damaged by his wife’s land deal in Co. Galway. He will cast a significant amount of his principles aside, just to play his role in government with Fine Gael. If he were a man of principle, he would form an alliance with Sinn Fein.
    Two, outside of the capital, especially in the west, the midlands and the north west, Fianna Fail is like a religion. Just look at the numbers that showed up last night for the canidate selection in Sligo. Crazy, the place should have been mobbed with protesters, no, it was overflowing with supporters. Look back to the results of the recent Donegal south west by-election, they received over 8,000 votes and were just piped to the line by Fine Gael! That says everything about our capacity as an electorate to make decisions based on past performance. As a people, we have suffered at the hands of Rome, London and now Leinster House. We have the same passive response to all. OK, we were not always passive with London, but look, we eventually settled for “half a loaf”, and we adopted their philosophy on pretty much everything we do in government.
    In my opinion, it does not matter that Fianna Fail have selected Micheal Martin, they could have went for Ivor Callelly and still maintained the core religious support they have always enjoyed effortlessy.

      • I don’t think Waters’ article is fully right because depression can be controlled with medication and you can lead a fully normal life.

        We have never ever been in a position were Fianna Fáil was ever below about 40% and that was all through the Haughey, Reynolds and Ahern years – it was only when the entire governance framework imploded, that its ratings fell to where they are now and even if on election date Fianna Fáil end up with 20% of votes, this is still a massive change.

        So rather than Fianna Fáil being the same as depression as Waters implies, it is more like an abusive relationship.

        The vast majority of people who get into such relationships, manage to get out of them. Some sooner than others.

        The relationship with FF is like such a case and we are now at the stage were many people who we thought would never see how wrong they were to think FF would change or that they were not facilitating their own abuse by their denial, have actually coped themselves on and ended the relationship.

        Of course some are too weak and/or unable to do so and some are too weak and/or stupid to not fall for the charm again but most of those will finally make the break.

        But there are always weak and stupid people who refuse to accept they are in an abusive relationship, no matter what, and these are the people who will vote for FF no matter what – these will be the 20% or thereabouts who will still vote FF – if its higher it will include people who were going to be strong and end the relationship but fell for the charm again, they’ll cop on again.

        Sometimes some of the people doing the abuse in abusive relationships do change, mostly they never do. So time will tell if Micheál MArtin really is capable of reforming FF to the same degree involved in say getting someone who has lived their entire life completely and utterly immersed in GAA to never play or watch GAA sport again but instead to become completely and utterly immersed in Cricket.

        In 1979 Fianna Fáil chose the ethos of Charles Haughey and Brian Lenihan Snr and it has taken from then to now for the rot that started them to destroy FF, so is Martin the heir of that culture or is he a return to the ethos of Colley and Hillery and will it take as long to undo the damage of the CJH/Lenihan ethos as it took to destroy the party – will it take 31 years for Fianna Fáil to rid itself of the cronyism virus and is Martin capable of doing that or getting rid of enough of the virus?

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