On Sunday night last I accepted Slugger’s invitation to wrote a piece on why Michael Martin can be the next Jack Lynch.
The task seemed quite straightforward and timely. November 10 was the anniversary of Lynch’s first election (in 1966) as Taoiseach, what better opportunity to compare the two Corkmen and reflect on their similarities.
Yet, almost two days after accepting the request, I was still finding it difficult to write the piece.
So why the problem?
Without a doubt there are many similarities between the two leaders.
Aside from the obvious fact that both hail from the Southern capital, though notably from different sides of the city, Lynch being a Northsider and hero of the Glen Rovers in Blackpool and Martin being a loyal Southsider, the two men have many other traits in common.
Both exhibited a leadership style that was more “Chairman than Chief”, to use the great phrase coined by the late Prof Brian Farrell. Similarly both men could be said to encapsulate the notion of the iron fist in the velvet glove.
At various times in their careers others made the error of mistaking their soft spokenness and calm nature for weakness and lack of resolve.
While the iron fist could be produced when absolutely necessary, some might say a little later than necessary, their more endearing, gentler ‘velvet glove’ gave both a personal likeability and approachability that made them less unattractive to non committed or soft FG or Lab voters, particularly women voters – though the evidence for this could be argued to be more anecdotal than statistical.
That said, it was Bertie Ahern who achieved the onetime seemingly impossible task of making Fianna Fáil less transfer repellent.
So, why the difficulty in writing this piece?
Well, I suppose the main one is that problems Martin faces are of such a magnitude and an unprecedented nature that it seems unfair to burden him with the mantle of being the next Lynch, Lemass… or whoever.
While Lynch had his considerable tests and challenges, not least the battle to hold Fianna Fáil together in the wake of the start of the ‘Troubles’ and the mire of the Arms Trials, his task was merely to bring the party back from the brink of schism – Martin’s is greater. He needs to rebuild and remake a party that all but ceased to exist. While it survived organisationally, with its constituency structures intact, it was close on annihilated politically.
But not only are the tasks facing the two men different, so too are the tools available to them. Whatever the difficulties he faced, Lynch had something Martin does not have: a critical mass.
By that I mean that Lynch still had a party with a wider leadership and parliamentary structure to withstand attack. As Dr Paddy Hillery said at the 1971 Ard Fheis when answering the challenge from Kevin Boland’s supporters: “if ye ever succeeded in getting rid of one of us (in the leadership) there’ll be more of us… And we’ll keep coming”.
That is not a luxury Martin enjoys. While Lynch could depend on a range of strong and established political heavyweights to help such as Paddy Hillery, George Colley, Des O’Malley, Joe Brennan, Brian Lenihan and Gerry Collins – Fianna Fáil’s deeply depleted parliamentary ranks leaves fewer people with whom to share the burden.
This contrast in circumstances is not the only difference between the two men. Unlike Lynch, who might be said to have wandered into politics, Martin sought out a political career, one underpinned by a very deep and sincere commitment to both Fianna Fáil and constitutional republicanism. His deep knowledge of Irish political history is most evident when it comes to Northern Ireland and his highlighting of Fianna Fáil’s credentials as the centre of gravity of Irish republicanism.
While Lynch presided over a far more experienced and weighty parliamentary party, it did not stop him looking outside the party and its traditional hinterland for new talent and new policy approaches – though admittedly not always successfully, as evidenced by aspects of the 1977 Manifesto.
Nonetheless, Lynch – who had served as a researcher for the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party and a speech writer for de Valera when first elected as a TD – managed to build around him a campaign team that was policy focussed and that combined the experience of a party grandee such as Sen Eoin Ryan with the youthful dynamism of a new General Secretary, Seamus Brennan. Brennan, aged 25, took over the role in 1973 from the veteran Tommy Mullins.
The decimation wrought by the 2011 election not only thinned the parliamentary ranks, it massively reduced the backroom support staff needed to run a modern major party.
Resources are scarce and HQ personnel are over stretched, so Martin and Fianna Fáil must look not just to the party’s still large number of activists and volunteers but to others much further afield. It needs to add to, not replace. It needs to bring in new voices and approaches and open itself up to those outside the artificial beltway around Kildare St and Mount St.
But the problem goes deeper than than that.
Martin’s Fianna Fáil faces the dilemma that a significantly larger segment of public broadly backs its policy approach than is prepared to back it. Many of those who support what are in essence Fianna Fáil policies; detest Fianna Fáil, leaving Fine Gael and Independents as net beneficiaries.
Being detested and despised is nothing new in politics, neither is recovering from it, but it’s not the nature of the problem that’s the difficulty, it is the scale of it. So it is too with the response – the critical factor is the scale.
So, can Michael Martin be the next Jack Lynch?
Given their similarities, the answer is probably yes – but given the magnitude of the task he still faces Martin needs to both channel the talents of Lynch and other of his illustrious predecessors and still bring in new skills, new approaches and new people.