Jody Corcoran: Martin has choice of a SF embrace or a FG marriage
Fianna Fail appears to face two deeply unpalatable post-election alternatives but may yet choose a third 'lesser evil', writes Jody Corcoran
Published 17/01/2016 | 02:30
After a good week and a better ard fheis, Micheal Martin will wake up today to find he is between the same rock and a hard place, as has been evident for some time: the rock is Sinn Fein; the hard place, Fine Gael.
After the forthcoming election, the Fianna Fail leader is going to have to make the toughest decision of his political career, or his career will be at an end - succumb to Sinn Fein's advances, or do a deal with Fine Gael.
From a Fianna Fail point of view, that is akin to choosing between the lesser of two evils, or as PJ Mara might have put it, the evil of two lessers. My bet is that he will try to find a third way. When the Coalition falls 15 seats short of the number of seats required to return to office, Micheal Martin will offer Fianna Fail support of a minority Fine Gael government.
That, ultimately, is the decision that awaits Mr Martin, who from now on will give short shrift to all such talk with a view of maximising the number of Fianna Fail seats in the election.
In that regard, I expect that Fianna Fail will win more than most pundits have so far predicted - at least 35 - by offering an alternative to the Coalition's 'stability or chaos' and 'keeping the recovery going' narrative.
Last week, Fianna Fail unveiled its election platform in the form of a poster, which, predictably, led to complaints of negative campaigning, but which will prove effective for all that.
The poster was a play on a Fine Gael poster in the last election, in which Enda Kenny promised to end the scandal of patients on hospital trolleys, but with the Fianna Fail kicker "Tax cuts for the wealthiest come first".
It was no coincidence that within hours of the unveiling of that poster Fine Gael came out with yet another policy, this time to replace an entirely abolished USC with a wealth tax on those earning over €100,000.
The Fianna Fail mantra from here on will be "There is a fairer way", by which it means it will deliver a fairer society than the Coalition has so far managed to do.
This may all seem like so much more electioneering, but there is a real issue here and potential for genuine traction for Fianna Fail, and indeed Sinn Fein, both of which have been singing from the same hymn sheet in recent weeks.
An opinion poll last September asked whether, now that the country was out of recession, a change of government was now needed to deliver a "fairer society". Fifty-eight per cent agreed, 41pc disagreed. The same poll asked whether people had felt the benefit of economic recovery - 38pc had but 62pc had not. And while 67pc felt the country was on the "right track", only a minority (43pc) were worried that a change of government might stall the economic recovery.
This is not the first time government parties and the opposition have fought an election along such lines, but Micheal Martin has more scope this time than did, say, Michael Noonan in 2002.
The then Fine Gael leader, Mr Noonan, challenged Bertie Ahern's 'A lot done, more to do' with: "If I were to describe the single greatest difference between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, it would be our passionate commitment to delivering first-class public services for all our people."
When the votes were counted, the country chose more money in their pockets over promised first-class public services and Mr Noonan resigned on the night of the election, before the final results even came in.
The country has been through boom and ruinous bust since then and voters are far more engaged than ever before; so it will be fascinating to see if attitudes have really changed as a result, or whether money in the pocket first and foremost still trumps investment in public services.
Micheal Martin is banking that attitudes have changed, that Fianna Fail's transition "to the left" and his attempt to portray Fine Gael as a heartless right-wing party will pay dividends.
At this point, it looks as though voters will plump for 'keeping the recovery going', although there is much to be won and lost when the campaign proper gets under way.
I am on the record as saying the result will be a lot closer than the opinion polls and bookmakers' odds currently suggest and nothing has changed my mind since.
But whatever the voters decide, in the cold light of dawn, Micheal Martin will still be left with that difficult decision.
In recent weeks, Sinn Fein has shamelessly played to Fianna Fail in an attempt to open up a second viable option for a new government - one which has been resisted by Fianna Fail.
Fianna Fail believe the Shinners' 'come-on' is an attempt to damage Fianna Fail, but I am of the view that Sinn Fein would, ultimately, enter such a coalition even as a minority party, such is its desire for power in 2016.
The mooted retirement of Gerry Adams might actually facilitate such a coalition, but Mr Adams last week also let it be known that he intends to seek re-election as leader at that party's ard fheis after the election, notwithstanding Mary Lou McDonald's expressed view last week that "nobody goes on forever".
It is doubtful that Micheal Martin would opt for a coalition with Sinn Fein anyway, such has been the vehemence of his resistance, not just towards Sinn Fein but to the manner in which the 'evil of two lessers' does business.
It is more likely then that he will eventually come face to face with Fine Gael, which, with Labour, is authoritatively predicted to fall 15 seats short of re-election.
Now back to that poll, conducted for the Labour Party last September. The following question was asked in the form of a statement: "I would be concerned at the instability that would be caused if the next government was made up of multiple parties of independents". Sixty per cent agreed.
Almost four years on from when I first predicted such an outcome, Micheal Martin will have to decide within a matter of weeks: coalition with Fine Gael or support for a minority Fine Gael government.
He will choose the latter, and self-preservation, in the likelihood that the country will have to face into an election all over again in 18 months. When it comes down to it, he has no choice really.