Martin is starting to look like a lame duck at helm of Fianna Fáil
Published 07/04/2015 | 02:30
Spare a thought for Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, whose efforts to resurrect the party's fortunes are being met with most resistance from within his own ranks.
As the party prepares for its Ard Fheis later this month, hopeful headlines about a possible renewal have been conspicuous by their absence, replaced instead with tales of public sniping and backbiting by disgruntled TDs.
Public Accounts Committee chairman John McGuinness has expressly stated he will mount a leadership challenge if the direction of the party does not change, while Éamon Ó Cuív has predicted the imminent demise of the former behemoth of Irish politics unless drastic action is taken.
"What is breaking my heart is that the party has not made more progress, because Fianna Fáil has an important role in Irish politics. Our opinions differ on what is needed by the party in order to make some progress, but that is natural in any party," said Ó Cuív.
The vocal criticisms are nothing new from the two men, who have a history of self-aggrandising solo-runs, but Martin's failure to censure them suggests his position is weak. Three years ago, when Ó Cuív opposed the party's stance on the Fiscal Treaty referendum, Martin acted quickly and sacked him as deputy leader and from the front bench.
Ó Cuív's comments on the referendum had come a few days before the party's first Ard Fheis in three years and Martin didn't want the event to be overshadowed or his authority questioned. His response was unequivocal - disloyalty and open defiance was met with punishment and severe consequences.
However, Ó Cuív's recent comments on the parlous state of the party, and his evident complete lack of faith in Martin's ability to restore its fortunes, are much more damaging to Fianna Fáil than his stance on the fiscal treaty referendum, yet no action has been taken against him.
Martin dispensed a few harsh words at the party's parliamentary party meeting last week, describing critical comments of his steering of the party as pathetic, but his inability or unwillingness to take stronger action against the rebels suggests his position has considerably weakened in the past three years.
Back then, Fianna Fáíl members were hopeful that their worst-ever election in 2011, in which the party polled just 17pc, was an aberration from which they would quickly recover. Now, after a succession of opinion polls has shown them failing to make any progress, they fear it's the new norm.
Martin's brand of "responsible" opposition, in which he has resolutely refused to take populist positions on things like water protests or tax cuts, is being blamed by some for its woes. However, this rush to condemn Martin conveniently overlooks the fact that the party cannot credibly criticise much of the Programme for Government, seeing as it, along with the Troika, was the author of most of the policies. Martin had no option but to suck it up and support many of the most unpopular decisions of the Government from the opposition benches, not exactly a winning formula when it comes to trying to score some points with an austerity-weary public.
The view of some that the party would quickly bounce back after it led the country into bankruptcy and a bailout, also suggests that many within it have yet to accept reality - that Fianna Fáil as a brand is toxic to many and its association with economic failure will take more than a couple of years to erase.
Chief among those who seem to think that Fianna Fáil has some kind of automatic entitlement to majority support is Ó Cúiv, who has said that if the party continues "to poll at 18pc, this will see the demise of the Fianna Fáil that people know" and it will become a "small, niche party". What he fails to appreciate is that the Fianna Fáil that was once synonymous with electoral success is already dead and, with just 19 TDs in the Dáil, it is currently a small, niche party.
While Fianna Fáil has an identity crisis at the moment, with little to distinguish it from either Fine Gael or Labour when it comes to policy, it does not help to have senior members of the party repeatedly refer to this crisis on the public airwaves.
What does it suggest to the public when two of the most high-profile members of Martin's frontbench disparage him, and the party, in public? Why should the people respect him as leader when senior members of his own party clearly don't? Why should they have any faith in him when members of his party obviously don't?
Martin's inability to rein in the two men, particularly in advance of the party's Ard Fheis in a few weeks, suggests that his position as leader is chronically weak and in danger. He should have sacked them both from his frontbench as soon as they started their public mutterings against him, but instead he has left it to others to defend his honour. This has resulted in Fianna Fáil TDs, eager to appear in the media to discuss the party's policy platform, instead fielding persistent questions about the calamitous future of the party and Martin's responsibility for it.
The first cracks in Martin's leadership began to show during the Dáil vote for the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill when he was unable to impose a whip, calling for support for the legislation, on his TDs. He tried to portray the free vote as a matter of his design, but he faced open mutiny on the issue and had no other option.
The bitter internal debate within the party on that subject is instructive when it comes to trying to pinpoint its policy quagmire. The problem is that Fianna Fáil doesn't know where it stands on a number of these social issues. While Martin is trying to project a modern, progressive image, the truth is that many within the party are much more socially conservative than even Fine Gael.
People like Senator Jim Walsh, who resigned the whip after he voted against the Children and Family Relationships Bill last week, do not enjoy the support of the leadership, but they command clout at a grassroots level and have the ability to make Martin's life very difficult.
Coupled with the party's six by-election losses since 2011, its stasis in the opinion polls, the defection of Kilkenny councillor Patrick McKee to Renua and Cllr David McGuinness's admittance that he is considering running as an independent in the next election, and things are beginning to look pretty bleak for Martin.