Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin appeared in studio on RTÉ’s Late Late Show tonight [May 22nd] to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on the country, give his reaction to the government’s mitigation efforts, and to provide an update on the government formation talks.
Asked if he could understand the frustration of voters regarding the slow pace of negotiations, he said he “100% can”, with him seeing COVID-19 as partly the reason for this slow pace. He said that he is in “earnest talks” with Fine Gael and the Green Party, and said a program of government could be signed off possibly by the end of next week or shortly thereafter. Later in the interview he said that another election would be an “indictment” on politics. Referring to struggling SME’s he said that “they need a government that can legislate for them […] that can provide funding for them”. He beileves that these businesses, “the engine of the economy” can’t afford another election.
Regarding last week’s “spat”, when rumours were abound that Fine Gael were planning for an election, he said that the he and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar have resolved the issue. He stated that the three leaders have respect for each other, despite their different political backgrounds.
He acknowledged that in the recent election Fianna Fáíl had expected a greater number of seats, but stated that about eight seats were only lost “on a couple of hundred of votes.” He dismissed Tubridy’s mention of Sinn Féin’s greater percentage of votes in the election, by focusing on Fianna Fáíl’s advantage with regard to parliamentary arithmetic. Furthermore, he refused to speculate on the chances of Fianna Fáil entering government formation talks with Sinn Féin, as he said his party had already given him a mandate to enter discussions with Fine Gael.
“It doesn’t phase me” was his response to Fianna Fáil’s poor showing in recent opinion polls, where they are languishing at 14%. He suggested that COVID-19 has given the government greater exposure which as led to FIne Gael’s boost in the polls: “that is natural in terms of an unprecedented event”.
He defended Fianna Fáil’s environmental record referencing Christy O’Sullivan who is “as green as they come” and who he believes has done a lot of good work for rural Ireland and biodiversity. He also rejected “the myth” that the Green Party are bad for rural Ireland. He called for the next government to open up different income streams in rural Ireland, such as forestry, and to provide state support to facilitate this.
Martin acknowledged that voters were looking for change, stating that “it’s not about things as they were”. He expressed dissatisfaction with the previous state of affairs where people struggled to afford housing, and said social housing was still on the agenda for the next government. He later stated that “we need to change society. We should take COVID as an opportunity to reboot.”
He denied that personal ambition was playing a role in his enthusiasm for forming a government without an election. “Yeah I don’t buy that”, he said when asked if there was more at stake for him due to the fact that he could be the only Fianna Fáíl leader who wasn’t Taoiseach. He said that as leader of Fianna Fáil he “grew the party again” and brought through a lot of “new energy”.
When asked if he thought COVID-19 was having its greatest effect on older people he said “I think it is, but I say that without attaching blame”. He said that a response to an emergency like this can’t be error free, but that the situation in nursing homes will have too be evaluated, as too many, in his view, have died. He called for greater government transparency, syggesting that he would publish where virus clusters emerge should he become Taoiseach. He understood that quick decisions had to be made in response to this crisis, and stated his preference with evaluation taking part later in order to avoid a situation where civil servants would be “looking over their shoulders”.
On the economy, he said that “there is a lot of uncertainty out there, it’s very serious”. He said that “small and medium enterprises are the ones I worry most about”. “I am afraid some companies will go to the wall”, he said. On unemployment he predicted that levels will remain high until Christmas but expressed confidence that it will be brought down. He suggested that the COVID-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment will be phased “in tandem with the phases of reopening the economy”.
When asked about the prospect of becoming Taoiseach should government formation talks prove successful, he responded: “we shall see”.