Micheál Martin is now over 100 days into his job as Taoiseach. The fact that this anniversary coincided with a recommendation to move the entire country to the most severe form of pandemic restrictions is a cruel irony.
Martin has been an unlucky general. His tenure has been defined by the daily dynamics of Covid-19 and his government’s related response.
Rather than engage in a futile exercise in “coulda, woulda, shoulda”, let’s be productive: let’s look forward to the 800 days Martin has left as Taoiseach and three things he could do to reset his premiership.
If ever there was a moment for “un duce, una voce”, it’s now. Leaders like Jacinda Arden and Angela Merkel own the agenda.
The same sense is not present here. The government’s decision-making process is giving rise to confusion and anger. The layered structures and time lag from the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) to civil servants to sub-committees to Cabinet have backfired on multiple occasions, most spectacularly with NPHET’s surprise Sunday evening recommendation to move the entire country to Level 5.
The somewhat awkward reality that Martin’s predecessor, Tánaiste Varadkar, is his both his current number two, predecessor, and successor is a confluence of events that isn’t going to change. It is time to show everyone who is boss.
Martin needs to organise from the centre. Stifle the oxygen that the current decision-making structures are fuelling. Accept that in today’s world, real-time communication means the days of controlling information are over. Make sure that the big moments count.
Use expert advice and use it well, but not as political cover. Become more creative in how you engage. Give people the detail—warts and all—and trust that they’ll respond to your authenticity. Communicate daily—you are the Taoiseach, and the power of the office alone gives you the chance to set the agenda.
Whatever honeymoon Martin had was quickly cancelled by events. His window of opportunity to set out the purpose of his premiership was non-existent.
The election result and subsequent government formation process played out in a way that simply forming a government, not planning for what you wanted to achieve in it, became the priority.
It is never too late to have purpose. If anything, the evolving impact of the pandemic demands it. Purpose in a time of crisis is like a magnet. It keeps you and your team focused. It gives everyone clarity. It sets a pathway, even for those who may not like or support you.
Devising a strategy that enables the Taoiseach to narrate clearly and consistently what he and his team aim to achieve is central to achieving the one thing he badly needs: public support.
Crucially, he must tackle what has become the divisive ‘either/or’ issue of health versus economy. People will understand so long as you explain why, simply, creatively, and consistently. The media hype around division will quickly dissipate by getting out ahead of it.
This is the hardest but increasingly most important one of all. The changing nature of the public mood over the period of the pandemic—fear, unity, confusion, uncertainty, anger—is now giving rise to despair.
People need hope, which isn’t something you can simply “turn on”, but only a handful of leaders over the decades have possessed that X-factor ability to convey it. Martin needs to join those ranks.
Right now, it’s Groundhog Day. The mood of the nation is at the mercy of that dreaded evening alert that comes without fail to tell us if the numbers are up or down.
With a vaccine some time away, realistic hope needs to become part of the response; in the fight against Covid-19, it is as important as the health system and financial supports.
The immediacy of the crisis makes medium-term planning difficult, but the government is large enough to do both. Engage with the economy and society about how we will recover from this. Collaborate with sectors and groups to identify what government and they can do together to get back. Minimising time in the political bubble, engaging with can-do, solution-oriented people will give him energy at what is the most relentlessly draining time.
There is no question that Martin has his work cut out for him. He must deal with the daily, unpredictable crises of an ongoing pandemic. Even if we do have a vaccine next year, the economic fallout of repeated lockdowns will be significant, especially with a likely no-deal Brexit to kick off 2021. All the while, he must manage a three-headed government that is by no means guaranteed to last its full term.
To succeed as Taoiseach, Martin must confront these challenges with strong leadership, set out a vision for Ireland’s recovery and future, and give us a reason to join him on the journey. And he only has 800 days to do it.
About the author
Founder and Managing Director of 360, Dan’s career spans business, politics and professional representation. He has overseen the agency’s rapid growth, developing a premier client portfolio and a talented team of professionals.