24th June 2021

Consistent but not contemporary: a year of Taoiseach Martin

On Sunday, Micheál Martin marks the milestone of one year at the helm of government. Happy birthday, Taoiseach—politically speaking.

If an unpredictable event (a general election resulting in a three-way tie) brought Martin into office, the most precarious event imaginable, the Covid pandemic, has dominated the first year of his tenure.

One hundred days in, we wrote about the need for the Taoiseach to ‘be the boss’. We focused on three tests we felt were key to his premiership: leadership, purpose, and hope. How has he measured up, and what of his remaining eighteen months in the role?

Consistent—but not a TikTok-er

For me, one word above all else sums up Martin’s leadership style: consistency. He has his own way of doing things and generally sticks to it. His careful and cautious nature has found a kindred spirit in the Covid decision-making process; slow and steady is the order of the day, with health dictating terms of both the management of the pandemic and the pace of reopening.

The potency of the virus, scar tissue damage from ‘the meaningful Christmas’, and the high-profile presence of leading Nphet members have hemmed Martin in. He has largely been a decision-taker rather than maker.

This approach, at least in the second half of his year, appears to have served him well. Opinion polls indicate that Martin is largely in check with the public mood on Covid. His own personal rating and that of Fianna Fáil have increased, albeit in the latter case from record low levels.

As a leadership characteristic, consistency is generally regarded as a plus. For many, there is a comfort in the familiar. One year in, the public has become accustomed to Martin’s patient, collaborative style.

He has resisted the temptation to jump aboard passing bandwagons, remained true to his liking for direct engagement with the public (at a social distance), and resisted the temptation to strike out at sniping backbenchers. He is still partial to the traditional communication platforms, most notably the Dáil and set-piece addresses from the steps of Government Buildings. (The chances of our Taoiseach popping up on TikTok seem remote.)

Martin's Government has been largely content to adhere to Nphet's recommendations. (Photo credit: Sasko Lazarov)

Stuck in the short-term prism

Consistency can only truly pay off if it penetrates the public psyche, which particularly now craves purpose and hope. On this front, Martin fares less well.

 One year in, there is no great sense of what a Martin-led government is in office to achieve. Of course, any fair assessment of this must take account of the tumultuous impact of the pandemic. The scale of the response—practically, financially, mentally—has been unprecedented.

Politics by its nature tends to be focused on the short term; Covid has made that even worse. Over the past year, government has been done largely through the prism of minutes, hours, and days. Given the fluidity of the pandemic, such short-termism has been to a degree unavoidable—but is has come at a cost.

The system’s continued rigidity, mistrust of external views, and the magnetic effect of here-and-now issues means medium-term needs suffer. In a government comprising 35 ministers, all supported by sizeable human and financial resources, that is not good enough.

Covid recovery measures, along with non-Covid policy areas, could have been anticipated and actioned sooner. Number one on this list was the vaccine programme.  Right now, the vaccine programme is rightly perceived as being a success, but who do the public put that success down to?

As previously expressed in this magazine, meaningful political leadership in vaccines was lacking last year. It was clear last summer that jabs were the primary way out of lockdown. That was the time for Martin to ‘own’ vaccines. He didn’t, and with that squandered the biggest opportunity ever presented to a Taoiseach.

Thank you for not smoking

Ask people about Martin and I’d bet that many would mention the smoking ban, a policy measure pioneered by Martin as health minister. Martin became synonymous with the smoking ban because he went to war on it.

Against all the odds and many opponents, including his then cabinet colleagues, he prevailed, and one of those rare political treasures—policy measures that normal people talk about—was won. Now, with the vaccine rollout generating feel-good vibes, many faces are jostling to bask in its glow. But it’s too late for Martin: his name is not the one the public associates with vaccines.

Despite the inherent instability of a three-way government, Martin has largely avoided being drawn into inter-party disputes. (Photo credit: Julien Behal)

On housing, it was the fury provoked by a frontpage media story rather than front foot policy action that sparked the only measure of note over the past twelve months.

While quick-fix tax changes on so-called ‘cuckoo funds’ may have bought a grace period, whether or not they will buy or build new homes remains to be seen. A new housing plan with ‘everything on the table’ is believed to be imminent (very sensible, very Micheál), but how another plan’ is received by a sceptical public will be one to watch.

On the cocktail of Brexit and Northern Ireland, Martin’s considered and well-intentioned ‘Shared Island Unit’ may have got civil servants and niche commentators talking, but its capacity to stir the nation remains doubtful.

His consistency has helped diplomacy, and these qualities are perhaps exactly what is needed right now to calm the mood. But politically, with Sinn Féin’s tanks firmly on the lawn and Fine Gael starting to talk up a united Ireland ‘in my lifetime’, Martin is between a rock and a hard place.

The need for contemporary consistency

As Martin enters his final year and a half as Taoiseach, one senses a leader who is frustrated with populism and promises in a world where everything is demanded now, and where radicalism in whatever form makes the running. All of this is happening at a time when technology continues to transform every aspect of our lives and calls abound for the state to step in and step on everything.

Establishing a foothold in such a noisy space is difficult. Doing so in a three-party government, with the dual challenge of managing and paying for a pandemic, is even harder.  But what has Martin to lose?

He is clearly not going to ditch the consistency, nor should he. But perhaps he needs to adapt that consistency to a more contemporary mode, where it resonates in real time and has a relevance to how people think, act, and live day to day.

Contemporary consistency will allow Martin to switch from thinking in hours and days to months (which is as long term as it gets in politics). He can anchor his medium-term thinking in a unifying message of recovery and capitalise on the change in mindsets and practices brought about by Covid-19.

He can give meaningful roles to people from outside of the public sector and spend time with fresh perspectives. He can intensify the rebuilding of confidence among a public whose habits have been reconditioned by lockdowns and are nervous about resuming social and economic norms.  He should also take a few more calculated risks because when he has done in the past (the marriage equality referendum), it’s worked.

He has until December next year to change the tempo.

About the author

Dan founded 360 to deliver intelligent communications as a service. Since 2011 he has cultivated a team of almost 30 professionals, who share his vision, ethos, and passion for redefining and reshaping PR. Dan works in close partnership with some of Ireland and Europe’s leading CEOs and senior executives to build their organisations’ communications cultures and equip them with the tools to succeed in fast-changing political, commercial, and social landscapes. Previously, Dan was a senior government and political advisor during Bertie Ahern’s term as Taoiseach and communications director for the Irish Tax Institute.

Cover photo credit: Charles McQuillan

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