With Mary Harney, it was the smog. With Bertie Ahern it was the peace process. With Micheál Martin it will be the smoking ban. Sometimes just one solid achievement will do. Sometimes the forgiving hand of history will lay its hand on your shoulder, accentuating your positives and playing down your negatives. Mary Harney may have been the leader of a party whose low-tax, hands-off approach to economics contributed so much to our current problems. But she did have the imagination and drive once to eliminate smoky coal and improve the health of the capital. Bertie Ahern brought the country to its knees during a decade of incompetent economic leadership, but he was an important contributor to ending more than 30 years of war in Northern Ireland. Whatever he goes on to do, Micheál Martin will always be the person who improved his country's health by his comprehensive ban on smoking.
Signs are over the last few weeks that Martin wants to go on to do a lot more. Suddenly he seems transformed, wading into public fights with opposition figures and coming off the better. Unburdened by any feeling of guilt at being part of governments which blew the boom, he has taken to conflict like a duck to orange sauce. On Monday's Frontline he approached economist Dan O'Brien as a cat might creep up on a harmless robin. Afterwards, O'Brien's feathers were everywhere.
On Thursday's Morning Ireland, Martin and Richard Bruton got into a scrap about the future of Ireland's corporation tax rate. The Fine Gael man was the more bruised afterwards, effectively forced to back down on claims he'd made that our low rate was threatened. We'd become so used to Bruton winning these types of arguments with Fianna Fáilers that it seemed a significant moment.
The manner of Martin's recent victories seem significant too. Gone is the self-effacing and mumbling choirboy of old. In his stead we have a relentless streetfighter, unwilling to let the facts get in the way of a good argument.
It's been a fascinating transition. Martin didn't so much burst onto the political scene in the 1990s as tiptoe in shyly when nobody was looking. He did a good line in sweet reason. Charisma and personality there was none. If they'd had yearbooks in his school, he would have been voted the pupil most likely to stop people smoking behind the bicycle shed.
In a parliamentary party full of cute hoors and chancers, Martin stood apart for his dullness, for the lack of any glint of ambition in his eye. Boringly competent, the kind of guy who punctuates his text messages, he sailed through life in a number of government departments without any serious controversy. He was always involved enough to look like a senior member of cabinet, but never so involved that he would have to take the blame when things went badly wrong.
And now that things have gone badly wrong, he is nicely positioned to take advantage. Over the coming years, Fianna Fáil will undergo some kind of reckoning. There will be a leadership change, either before the election, if the prospect of imminent unemployment concentrates the minds of backbenchers, or, more likely, afterwards when Fianna Fáil is in opposition.
There are really only three plausible candidates, even if none has declared an interest yet. Dermot Ahern will represent the neanderthal wing of the party, although it's hard to know how many of his supporters will still have seats after the election. To an extent, as the candidate of conservative Ireland, he is cancelled out by another potential leader, Mary Hanafin, a rank outsider. Then there is Micheál Martin, for the first time in his political career looking like a leader.
This new Micheál Martin should be seen in the context of Fianna Fáil's future. There will be a leadership change in the next 100 weeks or so, and Martin clearly has his eye on the top job. The message of the last week is that he will debate anybody, no matter how much of a media darling they might be, in the expectation that he can beat them. I suspect that he believes also that with the right leader in charge, Fianna Fáil might have a shot at winning the next election. On his current form, he must be licking his lips at the prospect of debating Enda Kenny.
Perhaps all the backbenchers need to make their move is the knowledge that there is an obvious leader to turn to. If so, Micheál Martin is doing his best to impress them. We shall see if they respond to his flirtations.
Talk to Joe? Face it, she's just not that into you...
Joe Coleman's attempts to hook up with the Virgin Mary are starting to become embarrassing. Coleman, a self-styled visionary with a decreasing number of suggestible followers, showed up in Knock again on Tuesday hoping that the mother of God would put in an appearance and engage him in some kind of conversation. Needless to mention, she was washing her hair at the time, although that didn't stop Coleman claiming that she had imparted a special message to him. He refused to say what it was, reminding one of Albert Reynolds's response to a reporter when asked what the Third Secret Of Fatima was: "It's a secret", Reynolds replied. Coleman is like a teenager with an imaginary girlfriend. It's time for him to face facts. Joe, she's just not that into you.