With only nine months on the clock up Michael Martin handing over the reins as Taoiseach, he must surely turn to the possibility of a lasting legacy.
Today’s poll shows that public support for Micheál Martin is higher than for Leo Varadkar – while at the same time more people see Varadkar as the “best” Taoiseach (7pc) as opposed to Martin (3pc).
This reflects a key difference between a successful politician and a successful political leader — and it’s an important difference.
Angela Merkel is perhaps the best example of a successful politician. Her career spanned 16 years in office, she won four federal elections and is still very popular in Germany.
The approach her government was seeking has been described as “driving on sight”. — which translates to “driving on sight”, as in a dense fog, reacting conservatively to decisions and crises as they happen.
However, when the fog lifts, many of the decisions made look much worse in the rearview mirror.
For example, the implementation of austerity measures during the eurozone crisis is now widely viewed as something that only deepened the economic downturn.
Their prioritization of German industry over the threat of authoritarianism has strengthened Orban in Hungary, Kaczynski in Poland and Putin in Russia.
But their biggest mistake was switching off nuclear power in Germany and relying on Russian fossil fuels instead.
Today we can all see that this is a huge problem, hampering Europe’s ability to counter the threat posed by Putin’s Russia.
All of this suggests that her legacy is already being questioned when she drives on sight – just months after leaving office.
In contrast, Sean Lemass — Ireland’s most popular Taoiseach — was a successful politician.
He was nowhere near as successful as Merkel (or de Valera) in terms of longevity or elections.
In fact, Fianna Fáil lost her majority at his first election in 1961 and only crept back into office relying on independents. In his second appearance, the party won just one seat, and a little over a year later Lemass resigned. His tenure was approximately one-third that of de Valera.
Still, it is Lemass that the public is looking to because of his legacy in the public eye as an economic modernizer and the impact his decisions will have on future generations.
Rather than “driving in the fog,” his decisions went beyond what was immediately apparent, beyond what would provide immediate electoral advantage.
As a testament to his influence, the vast majority of people who told us that Lemass was our greatest leader of all time were either not alive or children when he was in office.
Far too often, politicians strive for short-term electoral success and short-lived popularity rather than lasting impact. Some of the most influential political leaders – from Martin Luther King to Nigel Farage – have had virtually no electoral success, yet they have transformed their countries in ways that prime ministers and presidents could only dream of if they tried.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. And that could be argued in the current age of discord – from the global financial crisis to Brexit to the pandemic — it’s harder than ever to leave a lasting legacy.
However, it is often precisely in this environment that lasting change is possible. As Churchill famously said in 1945, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” Indeed, the UN, the modern welfare state and the structures of the EU were all developed amidst the debris of World War II.
And there is no shortage of crises today. As for public priorities, the cost of living crisis has risen to levels that the housing crisis has never reached.
In fact, the cost of living crisis has the potential to be as transformative as the pandemic. Inflation can slowly and insidiously destroy an economy as companies begin to rely more heavily on the dwindling value of their cash.
Our survey shows this cancerous growth in inflation in the economy. Once limited to energy prices, we are now seeing significant public pressure on food prices, with 85 percent of respondents noticing rising food costs March.
If it continues to spread through the economy, we should expect either an increase in wages (and further inflation) and/or an immediate increase in poverty. Especially in older people.
Political leaders sometimes try to leave a lasting legacy — and despite their best efforts, they often fail.
But beneath the surface of today’s political world simmers a climate crisis of such immediate and profound importance that given the infrastructural nature of the transition and the inevitable need to wean the country, it presents an extremely promising means of building a lasting legacy away from fossil fuels fuels.
Kevin Cunningham is Managing Director of Ireland Thinks and Lecturer in Politics at TU Dublin
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/analysis/the-legacy-thing-when-the-hunt-for-short-term-triumphs-denies-final-victory-41515263.html The Legacy: When the pursuit of short-term triumphs denies ultimate victory