Leading article

Micheál Martin's long journey

Micheál Martin's journey to the taoiseach's office has been a lengthy and complex one since he was first elected to Dáil Éireann more than three decades ago.

He was a central figure in Fianna Fáil's turmoils throughout most of that period, and the prediction that he would be the first leader in the history of the party not to head a government became one of the great cliches of Irish politics.

When his third general election in the role produced a disappointing result last February, with Fianna Fáil suffering the loss of seven seats and falling behind a resurgent Sinn Féin in the popular vote, even Mr Martin's strongest supporters suspected that his retirement was approaching.

However, after tortuous negotiations lasting almost five months, he finally emerged in charge of an unlikely new three-party coalition which includes Fianna Fáil's former bitter opponents Fine Gael as well as the Greens.

The terms of the deal mean that he will remain in post for the next two and a half years before handing over to a Fine Gael representative, expected to be Leo Varadkar, in December of 2022.

Mr Martin immediately finds himself in the middle of the coronavirus crisis, and must also steer Ireland through the climax of the risk-filled Brexit transition, so he will have to draw on all his considerable previous ministerial experience.

He has been a regular visitor to the north, where Fianna Fáil has been officially registered as a political party since 2007 but has yet to contest an election, and has also signed up to what is widely regarded as a tentative partnership with the SDLP.

Sharp criticism has already been expressed over his administration's failure to appoint a unionist voice to the Seanad, and on the other side of the divide his relationship with Sinn Féin is notoriously cool, so Mr Martin's early pronouncements on cross-border issues will be closely studied.

He will be acutely aware that the Brexit debacle has pushed serious discussion among both traditions about the final break-up of the UK towards the top of the political agenda in an unprecedented way.

It represents a tantalising prospect for a Fianna Fáil taoiseach, and, after such a long wait for the top job, he will know that his contribution to this debate may yet define his career.

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