COMMENT: Martin Needs To Respond To Leadership Criticisms For Good Of Country, Not Party

“Ireland is a great nation. And we are great people. We have experienced hardship and struggle before. We have overcome many trials in the past with our determination and our spirit. We will prevail.”

– Then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, announcing the first COVID-19 restrictions

It’s now six months to the day since our lives changed. Six months since Leo Varadkar addressed the nation from Washington D.C., to tell us that when he’d return home, our schools would be closed, and no more could we gather together as before. A full lockdown was only a fortnight away, and while much has changed since then, we are still living inhibited lives as a result of the dreaded virus. And, to a great extent, I feel, we’re fed up.  That has certainly been the sentiment of listeners’ comments this week, as well as in the news too.

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Ryanair called into question the future of its Shannon base, unless government restrictions are lifted. In another local ‘business v. health battle’, as businesspeople in Ennis ramp up calls for the town’s pedestrianisation measures to be eased. Pubs are re-opening, yes, but maybe not in Dublin and Limerick owing to rising cases in both areas and this will see another similarly-themed argument over the coming days, no doubt.

There are real issues at the heart of these conflicts, with legitimate concerns on all sides. We need society to function AND we need to protect public health. Walking that tightrope is proving difficult and I feel that frustrations are higher now than at any other time in the pandemic. Many of us are like toddlers in the back of the car, who want this interminable journey to end, but the answer to “Are we there yet?” is not only “No” but also that we have no way of knowing when we’ll reach our destination.

It’s not just that Ireland is at a tipping point.  Worse still, it feels like we’re balanced finely on a pinhead, with different dangers lurking depending on the direction we fall. The government is faced with the near-impossible task of balancing competing health and economic concerns, at a time when frustrations are high, and also when case numbers are growing.

There are no easy answers to issues on a local level (Ennis pedestrianisation, for example) or a national one (any further tightening of restrictions in Dublin). There is no answer that will please everyone. But on the back of a difficult six months, those who will inevitably feel aggrieved will shout very loudly, and will have their backers. Difficult choices will be made.

What we need now, most of all, is leadership. If business interests have to be fought off in the interests of public health, this needs to be done in decisive fashion. We have sacrificed too much to allow our gains be squandered by short-term political wins. Equally, if the public health advice is out of kilter with what is necessary, then government must strike a balance. Decisive action needs to be taken much more quickly, and we need to be told why decisions are made, what it means for us, what’s required from us, and for how long. Government Ministers need to be kept in line, even those from different parties. And above all else, we need to re-awaken the feeling of solidarity that has been lost in recent times.

Six months ago, at the outset of the COVID crisis, a large number of people responded to Leo Varadkar’s calls to arms in the way that our country needed. But when we were faced with what felt like an impending apocalypse, it was easier to get the public to fall into line. Six months in, the challenge faced by his successor is much more difficult, because we’re sick of COVID-19. Fianna Fáil TD’s (and not just the usual suspects) have told Micheál Martin that his leadership has not been good enough to date, and many more of them will say the same thing privately. More in the party’s grassroots are turning against their leader as well.  But what’s important for Ireland is that the right calls are now made to benefit all of the country, and not just Fianna Fáil.

Micheál Martin’s cause is not lost, and to be fair, his challenge is bigger than that faced by any other Taoiseach in our country’s history.  But he must now step up to the plate. The people of Ireland need his government to be proactive, and not reactive.  We need the sense that there is a steady hand at the wheel, and that the right course will be plotted going forward.  The launch of a medium-term COVID-19 strategy in the coming days feels like an opportunity to do this, but it might be his last chance.

If he succeeds, then Leo Varadkar will be proven correct – Ireland can and will prevail.  However, the cose of failure does not bear thinking about.