Thursday 27 November 2014

Fianna Fail: Back from the brink

There was a buoyant mood among the Fianna Fáil faithful this week as they gathered in Co Clare at a monument to their most successful statesman, Éamon de Valera. Micheál Martin, party leader, was given a rapturous reception after he laid a wreath in driving rain at the commemoration.

Almost two years ago, this was a party that was almost left for dead.

It was obliterated in parts of the country, decimated in Dublin, and turned into a rural rump elsewhere. It clung on to just 20 seats.

With Fianna Fáil almost a byword for economic calamity, incompetence, and political graft, there were question marks over the very survival of the once all-conquering political force that Dev had founded.

Micheál Martin was being described in all seriousness by the punditocracy as the "first leader of his party who will never be Taoiseach".

But, as in the case of Mark Twain, rumours of the death of Fianna Fáil seem to have been much exaggerated. This week's Behaviour and Attitudes Poll showed the party re-emerging as the biggest opposition party on 22pc, seven points ahead of Sinn Féin.

Most gratifying of all for the party was Martin's rating as the most popular party leader in the country on 42pc.

Dr Theresa Reidy, lecturer in politics at UCC, said: "You cannot read too much into a single poll, but a series of polls has shown that the Fianna Fáil is on the way back up."

It could so easily never have happened for the Corkman, who used to be referred to as "the dauphin". He was Bertie Ahern's heir apparent for a time, but then saw himself eclipsed by Brian Cowen.

By the end of 2010, with Cowen's government stumbling from one disaster to the next, Micheál Martin had suffered such a year of personal trauma beyond the world of politics that some local observers wondered whether he might give up his political career.

In October of that year his much-loved daughter Leana died at the age of seven. In a most moving tribute at the funeral, the TD recalled family holidays in Courtmacsherry in west Cork, and cycling to Timoleague to feed the ducks with Leana on the back of the bike holding a loaf of Brennan's bread.

Leana, who died of a cardiac complaint, was his youngest daughter. Martin and his wife Mary O'Shea have three other children – Micheál Aodh (18), who is a reserve goalkeeper for the Cork minor football team, Aoibhe (16) and Cillian (12).

It was not the first time the couple lost a child with a boy Ruairí having died in infancy in 1999.

Micheál Martin's political career mirrors that of his adversary Enda Kenny in one important respect. Both have spouses who are close political advisers and strategists while staying firmly behind the scenes.

The couple met in UCC where they were students. According to Fianna Fáil lore, a local party official prevailed upon Martin to ask Mary out. She initially turned him down, but changed her mind a month later.

As Micheál trained to be a teacher, Mary became Fianna Fáil's national youth organiser.

It must have taken some courage, and some would say uncharacteristic decisiveness, on the part of Martin to finally move to oust Brian Cowen in the tumultuous January of 2011. One close political ally said: "He is not somebody who likes to carry the dagger."

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