Micheal Martin only one defeat away from a sacking
FF leader's precarious status is leading to dangerous choices like the Hanafin debacle
WILLIE O'Dea's moustache bristled. Tearing shreds off of Micheal Martin for bringing Mary Hanafin back into the fold, Sean Fleming argued that the party and the voters wanted nothing to do with the former Fianna Fail ministers from the ancien regime.
O'Dea pointed out that he too was a former minister. Fleming clarified he was talking about the ministers who lost their seats in the general election wipeout.
Those who got back in, like O'Dea and Martin, had a mandate, he said, but they didn't need the rest.
Besides, O'Dea reassured his audience at the party frontbench meeting last Tuesday, he wasn't actually a minister in the bailout period of late 2010, as he had already resigned – viewed by some present as a suggestion that it wouldn't have happened on his watch.
Fleming's broadside was followed by similar criticism of the handling of the Hanafin scenario from Dara Calleary, Billy Kelleher and Brendan Smith, with Timmy Dooley and Colm Keaveney supporting the leader.
The frontbenchers were reflecting the views of the party members, who were as agitated, if not more, as voters by Martin's facilitation of the return of Hanafin.
Martin is notoriously sensitive about any criticism, but had to take this on the chin.
The embattled party leader meekly defended his position,
but there was less of the normal dismissive attitude towards any questioning of strategy.
Everyone in the party is also aware the Hanafin addition was a continuation of a pattern where former junior ministers Sean Power and Sean Haughey were also added to the ticket by the party hierarchy – and there have been a raft of spats about candidate selections right across the country.
Martin's precarious status as party leader means every seat will count in the local elections if he is to avoid being heaved out.
Looking beyond to the general election, Martin has become more interested in veterans having a shot at a seat, rather than investing in younger candidates.
Granted a blank canvas to rebuild the party after the wipeout, he doesn't have time anymore for grand plans about New Fianna Fail.
Old Fianna Fail is back as long as it can win votes.
Martin's position echoes that of the former Manchester United manager David Moyes: despite talk of long-term rebuilding, he's only one defeat away from being sacked.
Fianna Fail's leader heads up an organisation that still seems to believe it is a pre-eminent force in Irish politics, and has failed to recognise the last general election was more than a blip.
Before the Shatter affair, the debacle around Hanafin's re-emergence dominated discourse about the party.
Martin cast a lonely figure in the Dail on Tuesday as the debacle overshadowed Fianna Fail's attempts to launch an offensive on the Government's water charges policy.
By Wednesday evening, though, he was redeemed with the resignation of Alan Shatter as Justice Minister.
Martin can take the credit for bringing the files of garda whistleblower Sergeant Maurice McCabe to the Taoiseach's attention. But statesmanlike moments have been rare for the Fianna Fail leader as he has struggled to convince he is the man for the job.
Similar to Moyes, Martin's players aren't exactly making every effort to help their manager, with continual sniping and open speculation about his future.
The young turks appear to be biding their time and watching each others moves.
In the capital, the rot set in for Fianna Fail long before the general election wipeout, with the cracks well established for a decade and merely covered over by the Celtic Tiger. To make matters worse, Sinn Fein is on the brink of a clean sweep of three seats in Europe, assuming it can match opinion poll figures to ballot box votes.
Martin is reliant on his party having a very good day.
The malaise extends beyond preparations for the local and European elections. Fianna Fail's frontbench is far from firing on all cylinders, with the focus frequently being on opposing the Government, rather than proposing credible alternatives.
There are no longer full parliamentary party meetings, as the TDs are all on the frontbench, and the disgruntled senators got fed up just being informed of decisions.
The party's communications strategy is virtually a misnomer, with little effort made to explain its approach to issues and policy.
But Martin's work ethic is not in question and none of his frontbench is matching the hours he puts into the job.
The revival of Fianna Fail, if possible at all, is a project that will take a decade to achieve. But Martin won't be given that length of time to rebuild.
In an unforgiving game, he has become a prisoner of the need for results in the short-term – and ill-judged ventures like the Hanafin shambles are a sign of that desperation.