Thursday 29 September 2016

FF leader finds himself between a rock and a hard place with the election looming

Published 16/01/2016 | 02:30

Michael Martin. Photo: Justin Farrelly
Michael Martin. Photo: Justin Farrelly

Micheál Martin is his party's greatest asset and biggest liability at one and the same time.

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Since embarking on "Operation Rescue Fianna Fáil" after their electoral meltdown in February 2011, the Cork politician has had mixed luck at best.

After a few opinion poll flurries and a good 2014 local election result, the party is struggling in the popularity ratings and near enough to where it was in its darkest hour.

Above all, Fianna Fáil cannot challenge as a potential leader of the next government. Brave talk of leading efforts to oust Enda Kenny smacks of whistling past the graveyard.

Insistence on ruling out Fine Gael and Sinn Féin as coalition partners smacks of a stance for the election campaign only, which may be revisited.

On the doorsteps, party canvassers hear former Fianna Fáil supporters cite his name as a reason for reticence about returning to the fold. Already, there are mutterings from some constituencies about a reluctance to put up election posters bearing Martin's image.

There are many good things about Martin - even when he is mired in difficulty. He is intelligent, quick-thinking, and is one of the most experienced politicians in the country with 26 years in the Dáil and 13 years' cabinet experience in very senior posts.

The biggest Martin negative is his close linkage to the Fianna Fáil past and the calamity of economic bust. He was part of Bertie Ahern's frontbench from early 1995, and only quit Brian Cowen's ill-starred cabinet on January 19, 2011, days before everything came crashing down.

His past meant he could hardly oppose the austerity and had to back the Fine Gael-Labour Coalition implementing draconian policies he himself had helped frame. Experience as health minister limited scope to attack the Government on health in an election which will take place amid ongoing hospital A&E strife.

But Martin's difficulties are not confined to legacy issues. From the outset, he has struggled to frame a recasting of Fianna Fáil's republicanism which could appeal to many citizens through a message on equality of opportunity. His attempts to take the party along a more liberal, secularist policy road have been stymied by his own conservative colleagues.

Problems are compounded by his having a small Dáil team with few colleagues of ability and experience. There is a huge reliance on Michael McGrath marking Finance; Billy Kelleher on Health; Willie O'Dea on Social Welfare; and Niall Collins on Justice.

For the moment, Martin also has another advantage: there isn't anybody else. As Willie O'Dea sardonically noted, the party is not "coming down with Churchills".

But that situation may not last beyond the election. This election will define Micheál Martin's future.      

Irish Independent

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