FF's out of purgatory, but salvation must wait
THE full extent of the decimation of Fianna Fail was vividly illustrated two years ago this week, when the remnants of the party took their seats in the Dail chamber.
Where traditionally the party filled nearly half the space, suddenly Micheal Martin and his group of TDs were just a small block on the opposition benches.
Only one in four of them made it back, with the late Brian Lenihan at the time being the only TD from Dublin and no women in their ranks.
From a general election fought in circumstances where everything that could possibly go wrong did go wrong, the party was at its lowest ebb.
From the ground zero of getting just 17pc of the votes in the general election, the party has slowly but steadily attempted to regroup and rebuild.
A recent run of opinion polls has had the party recording support figures in mid-20pc range.
But the party leader himself knows it is still premature to talk of a Fianna Fail comeback.
Mr Martin faces plenty of challenges to translate those numbers into actual votes – and seats.
Leadership: Not so long ago, as the party continued to languish in the polls, Mr Martin's suitability to lead the party into a new era was being questioned.
His appeal is entirely contradictory – a former minister who served for the full 14 years in Government claiming to be a fresh face of the party.
But his experience has proved valuable as he has stabilised the party's position and kept the disparate wings unified.
Mr Martin has benefitted from the latest polls as it has ended the speculation about his status – until the local and European elections. Failure to deliver there will start the whisperings again. And he could also do with a win in the Meath East by-election to match polls to ballot papers.
Opposition: Never lacking in brass neck, Fianna Fail has attacked the Government for failing to implement the policies required to repair the damage to the finances it caused in power.
However, the party has been nuanced in its approach. When they kick a minister, they kick them hard – yet they have also been supportive on the Fiscal Treaty, broad budgetary targets, the ending of the promissory notes and the Croke Park deal.
Picking a few clever issues, the party has gone into campaigning mode on the property tax and the closure of garda stations – even though, again, they created the conditions where these policies were required.
But the party's economic credibility remains in critical condition so it needs to guard against a characterisation of wanting to simply repeat the same mistakes again.
Social Policy: A few hurdles visible on the horizon to be overcome are same-sex marriage and abortion, where opinion in the party is divided.
The same-sex marriage debate at the Constitutional Convention will test how far it is willing to come out in support of the measure.
But the party has played its cards close to its chest on abortion. Fianna Fail remains pro-life but has held fire until the Government publishes its legislation. The suicide test remains the key point. But recent utterances from Mr Martin indicate his requirements for backing the legislation will be all but impossible to meet.
There's a fine line there between upholding principle and being seen to be politically opportunistic.
Candidates: The rise in the opinion polls at this time is important in terms of attracting candidates for the local elections. The locals are the breeding ground for general election candidates and the party is an attractive option for ambitious and aspiring politicians with a clean slate in so many constituencies.
However, the rise in support can also draw back those who were chucked out by the voters last time out. Mr Martin is only just getting away with being a reminder of the ancient regime. He doesn't need back-up.
Fianna Fail also has to deal with the internal hostility to gender quotas as there's no point in starting the process of getting more women on the ticket after the main recruitment drive is over.
Coalition: Where previously party leaders were asked to rule out going into Government with Fianna Fail, Mr Martin is now having the tables turned as he is quizzed about entering coalition with Sinn Fein.
He has been woolly over recent weeks, initially leaving the door open and then closing it shut. But Eamon O Cuiv and Timmy Dooley have been more receptive to the idea, at least keeping it open. Mr Martin can expect the question marks to remain and he will have to be firm either way.