Just when it seemed that he had finally reached dry land, after weeks of struggling against the tides, it all went wrong again for the Taoiseach. With one foot on the bank, along comes another Leaving Cert fiasco to send the Government sliding back down the slope and into the mud again.
For Micheál Martin, the handling by Norma Foley of the Leaving Cert problem had seemed like the only swallow of a bleak and hapless summer. That was until the news broke that 6,500 students had been wrongly marked down in the calculated grades error, that college placings and final points were in chaos, and that the mathematical challenge of working out the grading system had proved to be too daunting for the department’s experts.
If ever the old caveat of being wary about what you wish for proved its validity, it must be so in the case of Micheál Martin, whose accession to the office of Taoiseach has been a baptism of fire. From the first banana skin of a Cabinet Minister caught driving without a licence, to Golfgate, to the exam results debacle, the trip-ups have been relentless. And the own goals – because that is what they generally were – have come with such regularity that the opposition does not have to go looking for mistakes; the Government is handing them the initiative on a plate.
And allied to all of this is the sheer ineptness in Cabinet circles of the way in which government business is communicated to the public. Even the most fledgeling media practitioner would moan in dismay at a government which, all in the space of a week, would announce the appointment of ten new Junior Ministerial advisers, the cutting of the Pandemic Unemployment Payment, and a restoration of pay for the members of the Dáil and Seanad.
Micheál Martin is also in the unhappy situation of being stuck with the blame even for things he has no control over. The crass insensitivity of Senator D’Arcy leaving politics to act as a lobbyist for the vested interests he once opposed is an embarrassment to the Fine Gael party of which he is a member, but also to the Government and, by extension, to the man who heads that government.
The Taoiseach has a short two years to put his stamp on this government and to assert – as he would see it – Fianna Fáil primacy in the three-way arrangement that he helped construct. So far, there is no great sign that the public quite sees it that way, and many see subtle signals from Fine Gael that Varadkar’s party has not completely ceded its authority to Martin’s leadership.
Small wonder, then, that old heads in Fianna Fáil are expressing their doubts about the route being travelled, and whether being part of a coalition arrangement is a threat to the very existence of the party. In an open letter to Mr Martin, the party’s MEP, Billy Kelleher, has warned that unless Fianna Fáil addresses what he calls its core problems, it will be unable to arrest its present decline and will, eventually, become irrelevant.
In comments that could not have made pleasant reading for his leader, Kelleher pointed out that, while the party had expected to take 60 seats in the last general election, it had instead lost seven, finishing with 38. It had won less popular support than Sinn Féin and, since February, its support in the opinion polls had fallen to unprecedented levels.
And in a chilling summary of just how far Fianna Fáil fortunes have fallen, he said: “We must find the underlying cause as to why 75 percent of the Irish people in the last two general elections refused to give us a first preference vote.”