Does MM stand for: Micheál Martin or Managerial Minimalism?

This week’s column first appeared on Broadsheet.ie on Monday Novembe 15th and returns to a familiar theme; the flawed political leadership style of Micheál Martin.  

You can tell that it wasn’t a great week for the current government, when one of the least worst headlines it garnered was: Taoiseach defends Eamon Ryan’s appointment of cronies to climate council roles.

It’s like Zapponegate never happened… or maybe it’s that this administration spends so much time lurching from problem to problem that it hasn’t yet had a chance to learn the lessons of the last one?

Let’s look back over the stories that dominated the headlines during just the first few days of last week.

On Tuesday, we discovered that it would be 2042 before we would see a Dart underground line. We also found that that there won’t be new metro lines south or west of Dublin with the next two decades either. All this courtesy of a National Transport Authority review of its strategy for the capital.

This was the same day that we learned that the Department of Finance was considering going after the home purchase deposits coming via the ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’. (It took Pascal Donohoe several days to walk this story back.)

A few hours later we read that the ‘unprecedented’ shortage of homes meant that rent inflation was now hitting 6.8%, notwithstanding the rent caps and rent pressure zones.

As if all this was not enough, Tuesday was also the day we heard An Taoiseach angrily deny an Irish Daily Mail frontpage story saying the government had planned a roadshow to attract cuckoo funds.

“Not true” the Taoiseach and his housing minister told the Dáil. “There is no roadshow to attract any cuckoo funds…”.

Ah, but there is, said Irish Daily Mail reporter Craig Hughes. Posting a scan of the internal Department of Finance note on Twitter, the following morning.

By Wednesday, the Taoiseach was back at Leader’s Question and delivering on the role he has spent months devising for himself, that of spokesperson-in-chief for the civil service.

It is a role to which he can often sound particularly suited. Though it is clearly not the one to which he was nominated, namely the elected political leader of government.

This time the spokesperson-in-chief was telling the Social Democrats Co-Leader, Roisín Shortall that MetroLink would not take an extra ten years to deliver. That’s all just spin, he protested, citing the intended early 2022 start date for the planning stage of the project as evidence.

But Deputy Shortall is too wily to fall for that one. She knows that a project starting on time is not the same thing as saying it will be completed on time.

When will it be delivered, she asked? When will folks be able to actually use it?

It’s a reasonable question.

It’s also a question you would hope might concern our head of government, the Taoiseach, a T.D. elected by the good people of Cork South-Central for over 32 years and a party leader for over a decade.

It seemed, it didn’t.

His response was not that of a canny political leader eager to drive forward on a big project. It wasn’t even that of a shrewd senior civil servant.

Rather, it was the kind of passive reply that wouldn’t have seemed out of character coming from the lips of a jaded, near-superannuated, middle-ranking civil servant. He said

“No one in here can determine the length of time that will be involved in getting over those timeframes, challenges and so on that inevitably happen with projects as large as this. What has been provided is the funding to underpin the project in the national development plan.”

Should we be surprised the government has not learned the lessons of Zapponegate, when the more vital lessons of the economic crash seem lost on the Taoiseach?

The worst of the old habits were back. The focus was once again on inputs, not on outputs. We have provided the funding. Our job is done.

Martin’s attempt to declare his government’s public transport plan for Dublin a success by citing how much will be spent on it now, rather than when people can travel on it, it is not merely a throwback, it is a denial of so many of the key lessons Martin had identified in the first years of his leadership.

Just when we need a Taoiseach, and a government, driven by the goal of daily impressing on the apparatus of government the people’s need to see delivery on housing, health, transport, and the quality of life, we have one that sees its role as explaining the government’s problems to us.

Too many in and around the political element of this government interpret the representative role the wrong way around. They do the same with the concept of accountability.

Rather than representing and presenting the public’s needs and concerns at the heart of government, its ministers, and – sadly – too many of its backbenchers, see their function as representing the government’s difficulties to us, the public.

I was ranting about all of this in a WhatsApp chat with a colleague during the week when I used of Micheál Martin’s quotes with an “as MM said” to identify the source.

“When you say MM” came the response, “do you mean Micheál Martin or managerial minimalist?”

In one line they summed up the problem.

Martin’s whole approach as Taoiseach is that of managerial minimalism. It is a style which he may have gotten away with, a few decades ago, in a calmer time. But not today.

Big weighty decisions are eschewed in favour of micro management, though the type of managerial minimalism favoured by Martin demands more time, more late nights and more lengthy consultants reports than the broad brush, big picture leadership of some of his more illustrious predecessors. 

To be fair to Martin, the trait is far from unique to him. It is not even unique to the government side of the Dáil. It is every bit as much on show from Sinn Féin’s Stormont ministerial team. Which makes Martin and McDonald’s clashes at leader’s questions appear all the more depressing.

Each accuses the other of precisely the same thing they each do when in government. And while McDonald’s rhetoric makes her sound as if she is at least on the public’s side, a serious scrutiny of the substance suggests otherwise. How you can justify opposing the delivery of 850 homes on Oscar Traynor Road in the throes of a housing and rental crisis that is that is characterised by a lack of supply, is beyond all logic.

Not that everything coming from the Dáil last week was so dispiriting or disheartening. In fairness, it rarely is. While some at the top may have forgotten whose interests they are there to serve, most TDs across the chamber still know it. And practise it.

OTVknI98This was evident in Fianna Fáil TD, John McGuinness’s distressing but powerful speech on the near criminal failure of the gardaí, the HSE and Department of Health to intervene and stop the abuse suffered by Grace and others.

His intervention was a reminder that every T.D. has a responsibility to hold both the government of the day, in the form of its ministers, to account and also the various state agencies and bodies that operate under government’s authority.

This is something that Deputy McGuinness’ party colleagues in Fianna Fáil headquarters should note, as they omitted to include any link, or reference, to his speech in the weekly e-bulletin sent to party members after 5pm on Friday.

This absence seems very odd indeed as Deputy McGuinness’ speech figured prominently on several online party member forums and has more views on Youtube alone than the last 100 official party YouTube videos combined.

It does start to look as if the current leader’s managerial minimalism now governs the party’s entire political outlook.

For the sake of my former party and the future of moderate politics, I sincerely hope I am wrong.  

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