Monday 24 October 2016

The badlands of opposition may yet be Martin's best bet

Gerard O’Regan

Published 19/12/2015 | 02:30

Micheál Martin. Photo: Mark Condren
Micheál Martin. Photo: Mark Condren

When Micheál Martin tiptoes down the stairs on Christmas morning to check out what a hopefully benevolent Santa Claus left under the tree, there is a particular book which might provide Fianna Fáil's top man with some timely Yuletide insights.

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'Stalingrad', written by the historian Anthony Beevor, recounts the titanic struggle between Hitler and the Soviet Union during World War II. One of its key insights is that it reminds us once again, how the German dictator made one of the great mistakes of all-out conflict. He couldn't bring himself to accept there are times when retreat is the best form of attack. Despite overwhelming evidence that his battle plan had come seriously unstuck, Hitler doggedly refused to face reality. Eventually, such obduracy made his demise inevitable.

Maybe there is some parallel between this lesson from the history pages and Martin and his front-bench generals, as they dither about which options might be open to them after the General Election. Of course, all will depend on the breakdown of the numbers. But one thing is certain. Regardless of how off the mark the opinion polls may be, Fianna Fáil will not get enough seats to form a government on its own.

But that will do little to dull the ever-gnawing temptation within the party to try and get into power if some form of deal can be hatched, even between the most unlikely partners. Should the numbers make it possible, the momentum for such an arrangement could be all-powerful. As former tánaiste and Progressive Democrats leader, Mary Harney, once famously concluded: "Your worst day in government is better than your best day in opposition."

Whatever about the official stance of Fianna Fáil prior to polling day, by way of ruling out various coalition options, we know from past experience we can take all such blandishments with a pinch of salt. It is only when the votes are counted that real choices will have to be made. Then we may hear yet again the hoary old chestnut: "We have decided to go into government because the people have spoken''.

It should not be forgotten that the recent British general election was something of a turn-up for the books. A plethora of polls proved to be seriously out of sync when it came to the final result, which saw Cameron and the Tories romp home with an unexpectedly comfortable majority. Could that be a sign - given the topsy-turvy political times we live in - that our own day out at the polls will throw up some really surprising results?

Depending on how the cookie eventually crumbles, Martin and his cohorts could be left with some excruciating choices. They may even have to consider the previously unthinkable - forming a government with the other Civil War-spawned party, Fine Gael. Another option for Fianna Fáil to make up the numbers for a Dáil majority, just might include an amalgam of Sinn Féin and Labour deputies, plus flotsam and jetsam from smaller parties and some Independents.

Martin has ruled out the possibility of any coalition arrangement with either Fine Gael or Sinn Féin. However, a deliberate decision to forego the chance of getting into government could unleash previously dormant tensions within Fianna Fáil, and might even spark an attempt to unseat the current leader.

One way or another, there are currently so many 'ifs, buts, and maybes' in the equation, it will be difficult for him to really chill out during his seasonal break. But as we move inexorably towards what now seems a late February election, he faces some do-or-die decisions which may decide his very political survival.

Yet surely the lessons of history, which are usually ignored because of the ingrained repetitive nature of human instinct, would suggest that post-election, Martin and his party should retreat into opposition. However unpalatable it may seem to some, Fianna Fáil should for different reasons, ignore all blandishments to go into a coalition with either Fine Gael or Sinn Féin.

But, regardless of whatever way he turns, there are huge political risks for Martin. If his party is left languishing in opposition, and should the next government be reasonably cohesive and solid, it will look like a long, hard, dreary road ahead, as they remain ground down on the wrong side of the Dáil chamber. It will certainly make for restive TDs, and restive front benchers, should Enda Kenny be comfortably back in power.

Yet Martin's choices are limited. He also carries the burden of being identified with the Fianna Fáil of the Cowen bank bailout era. This could be his Achilles heel should his leadership be threatened by somebody who sees themselves as part of a 'new breed' within the party. If Hitler had revamped his strategy back in the winter of 1942, who is to say how the tide of human history would have played out?

Yet looking back through the years, one thing seems clear. There are definitely times when it's best to retreat and retrench - and live to fight another day. All things being equal, going into the badlands of opposition just might save Micheál Martin's political career.

Irish Independent

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