What To Expect From Taoiseach Micheál Martin

26 Jun 2020 | 03.17 pm

What To Expect From Taoiseach Micheál Martin

Schooling is his first test

26 Jun 2020 | 03.17 pm

Micheál Martin has waited over thirty years for the top job in Irish politics. His instincts are socialist, but that won’t do for Fianna Fáil, going forward, writes Doug Casey

Nearly all Irish politicians are socialists of one hue or another, insofar as they all believe in taking money from people who have it and redistributing to those who have less. The only difference between them is where they lie on the socialism spectrum.

Fine Gael is further along this spectrum than perhaps its supporters would like. On the evidence of recent budgets, Leo Varadkar and his finance minister Paschal Donohoe have shown no hesitation about trying to please the masses with public pay and public spending commitments rather than making meaningful reductions in the punitive income tax burden.

Since 2016 and the confidence and supply deal with Fianna Fáil, annual budgetary policy had to take account of Fianna Fáil demands. In three of the four budgets since 2016, the Fine Gael government did tweak USC income tax rates at the lower end, and there was a small concession on inheritance tax.

Micheál Martin acknowledges that Fine Gael would have done more on the taxation front were it not for Fianna Fáil pulling them back. Martin’s view is that during the previous 2011- 2016 Fine Gael government, “every budget was regressive due to the dominance of Fine Gael’s preferences”. This analysis is arrant nonsense, as it was Fine Gael that introduced the property tax and piled on the extra USC pain at the top end.

Addressing the Dáil last year, Martin went on: “Fine Gael campaigned in the last general election with the most regressive tax platform ever proposed for an election. Under the confidence and supply arrangement, which underpinned recent budgets, a decisive shift in favour of social supports and public services was secured.”

Martin also noted that ahead of the 2020 budget, Varadkar stated his preference for cuts in the higher rate of tax. “He wanted to begin a down payment on his massive and regressive tax cut promise,” Martin stated. “Our demand was for a more progressive approach and we stand by this.”

So there can be no doubt where Micheal Martin stands on taxation. He’s fine with it the way it is, and he favours an ongoing ‘progressive’ approach i.e. relieving people on high incomes of more of their money.

One exception to this progressive philosophy is increased carbon tax, which Martin favours. Like all taxes on fuels, carbon tax is regressive, but that doesn’t matter to Martin so long as the tax proceeds are diverted to the key FF voter base of Bord na Mona and ESB workers in the midlands.

Crowd Pleaser

It’s not surprising that Michael Martin (59) is a crowd pleaser. Apart from one year as a teacher, he has been a professional politician all his working life. He became a TD for Cork South Central in 1989 at the age of 28, and was the senior minister across four government department between June 1997 and January 2011.

Martin came to prominence when Charles Haughey was Taoiseach but was too junior after his election in 1989 for ministerial preferment. He was close to Haughey and was even invited to some of the Haughey family weddings.

Haughey was gone by 1992 and the arrival of Albert Reynolds on the scene delayed Martin’s upward progress, due to the perception that the Cork TD was in the Haughey camp.

Martin’s break came when Bertie Ahern became Taoiseach. At that stage he had racked up considerable experience on Cork Corporation, and Martin is very rooted in Cork politics and enjoys party support throughout Munster.

From early on, some people around Ahern became nervous about Martin’s popularity among members and in the parliamentary party. It was for this reason, many believed, that Martin was ‘promoted’ to Minister for Health in January 2000, after spending less than three years in charge of the education portfolio.

In Education, Martin made the most of a rising economy to facilitate local TDs seeking more resources for their local schools. There was a procession of government backbenchers to his door, and Martin was also acutely aware of cultivating the media, with the assistance of a number of well-chosen advisors.

The health department is a poison chalice and Martin tried to make his mark, producing a policy blueprint for overhaul of the health services. Some of his cabinet colleagues felt annoyed they were reading about it in the newspapers before they had been given the chance to discuss it around the table.

Finance minister Charlie McCreevy shot down Martin’s reform on the basis of cost, and Martin moved on to nanny state, budget-neutral initiatives, such as the smoking ban in pubs. Martin’s other department experience was in transport and tourism, and foreign affairs. So during his career he has been round the government house, except for finance.

Politically Correct

Admirers argue that Martin put a bit of modern definition around the Fianna Fáil brand. He rowed in behind the outgoing government on the issues of gay rights and abortion, despite opposition within his parliamentary group.

Martin was proven right by the results of the referenda, and he now fits the bill for another politically correct, media friendly leader.As Taoiseach, Micheál Martin is more likely to be a chairman-type rather than a chief executive in the way he conducts his cabinet. He is patient and conscious of the political nuance and impact of policy. The length of time he takes to make decisions has led some of his party critics to accuse him of being overly cautious.

Martin may see his party moving glacially but steadily to the right. No party can hasten in this regard, since it must take its core vote with it. It would be a slow and strategic withdrawal, rather than abject retreat, from some electoral ground in order to encroach on the electoral land of others.

The original ‘sans culottes’ that deValera reached out to are now women and men with solid stakes in modern Ireland, meaning they have much to lose. It may be time, therefore, to ditch the vacuous ‘Ireland for All’ slogan that FF has employed for the last two elections, and which may soon stand as the last proof that it was once a legitimate catch-all party.

Those days are gone, and increasing development and diversity of all kinds has led to sophisticated and discerning levels of voter choice. With the status quo under sustained attack from the cohorts carrying banners of Change, Fianna Fáil had better stand for something. Figuring out what that will be is a matter that will take some time.

Acid Test

Near the top of the new Taoiseach’s in-tray is education. Society can’t get back to normal until working parents can park their toddlers and children in pre-schools and schools, and Martin has to insist that from September it’s back to normal for the kids and their teachers.

The evidence is overwhelming that the threat from Covid-19 to childrens’ health is negligible.

According to the latest CSO count, nobody in Ireland under the age of 24 has died from Covid-19. A tiny, tiny proportion of the 1,580,000 young people under the age of 24 were hospitalised due to the disease and they all survived the infection.

Analysed data from 25,400 confirmed Covid cases shows that the hospitalisation rate for 330,000 under 4s is 6 per 100,000. Perhaps closing down pre-schools prevented the spread of the infection, but was it really worth it to deny schooling to the 329,980 toddlers who didn’t become infected?

There are 549,000 primary school children, and 16 of them ended up in hospital because of Covid. The figure might have been higher without the lockdown, but 548,984 children have lost out on three months of formative education due to safety first at all costs.

Fianna Fáil led the charge to scrap the Leaving Cert exam, denying this pivotal, independent education test to c.55,000 teenagers. There are c.372,000 secondary school students in total, and 45 of them were hospitalised due to Covid since the pandemic started.

There is absolutely no sound medical reason why the Leaving Cert couldn’t have been organised for July, but Fine Gael education minister Joe McHugh – now banished from the government inner circle – couldn’t or wouldn’t face down the teaching unions.

So Martin and his novice education minister Norma Foley have a decision to make. Do they insist on ridiculous social distancing strictures for schools from the autumn, and if so for how long? And if so, why? Who is being protected – the children or the 640,000 retired people aged over 65 who account for 94% of Covid deaths.

So what will Martin do regarding primary and secondary schools? Will he dither and fudge, and rely on the crutch of “expert medical advice” like his predecessor, or will he come to the rescue of the country’s children and their parents.

Pix: RollingNews.ie / Julien Behal

 

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