Friday 30 September 2016

Good news is Martin's on a high. Bad news is he's on a tightrope

Published 19/09/2016 | 02:30

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin with his party’s TDs outside Leinster House
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin with his party’s TDs outside Leinster House

Spool back just a little less than two years. Specifically, to Saturday, October 11, 2014 - a day of dread for Micheál Martin. There were by-election counts in Tallaght and Roscommon town that returned results meaning the leader of the main opposition party had lost his fifth and sixth consecutive by-elections against an unpopular coalition government.

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Not only that, but up to 50,000 people turned out that same afternoon on the streets of Dublin to protest against water charges. Fianna Fáil was still clinging to its ineffectual mantra of "not these kind of water charges and not now".

Mutterings about the Cork TD's future as leader began again. The consensus was that he would hang on in because a beleaguered and depleted party had no alternative.

"If we had even one TD in Dublin who could just walk and talk, I think that would be our new leader," one veteran Fianna Fáil TD confided.

However, since the death of Brian Lenihan, in June 2011, the party had no Dublin TD and no woman in the Dáil. Fianna Fáil's most enduring star, Willie O'Dea, summed things up when he sardonically noted that the party is not "coming down with Churchills".

Mr Martin, however, showed mettle not many credited him with. He kept going, shrugged off middling to poor opinion poll ratings and reaped a strange dividend in the general election last February 26.

As Fianna Fáil gathers in Carlow today for its pre-Dáil think-in, it's worth looking at where it was only 12 months ago when members gathered for the same gig in Sutton, Co Dublin.

On that occasion, Mr Martin was relieved to have finally won a by-election, a first in seven outings, only weeks earlier thanks to Bobby Aylward in Carlow-Kilkenny.

He was also reliant on harking back 15 months to the local and European elections of May 2014. On that occasion, Fianna Fáil had 25pc of the council vote and was fractionally the biggest party in that contest.

On a happier note, it was beginning to get its 30pc mandatory quota of female candidates for the general election. The usual assertions that grassroots morale was good was taken with a certain pinch of salt.

All credit to Mr Martin, then, for a very solid general election campaign from which he emerged as the more impressive debater where other leaders foundered.

He was blessed with a very poor Fine Gael election campaign and the implosion of Labour, but the party more than doubled its seat take to 44 TDs, including six women, and a strong presence in Dublin.

As Mr Martin predicted, the party was ahead of opinion poll predictions, capturing one in four voters. It was also only fractionally behind its long-time adversaries, Fine Gael, in vote share and TD numbers.

What followed was sluggish, and for long periods did not reflect too well on Mr Martin and Fianna Fáil, as party well-being took precedence over the national interest.

Mr Martin eschewed the one real option for stable government - a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil coalition. Much of the low-energy talks process with Fine Gael in Trinity College centred on Fianna Fáil trying to claw back the political credibility blown on the water charges issue.

By the general election campaign, Fianna Fáil had followed Sinn Féin, who in turn had followed the Anti-Austerity Alliance, to declare war on water charges. Let's recall that Fianna Fáil had backed water charges as far back as October 2009.

What emerged as part of Fianna Fáil's pledge to provide a "confidence and supply" deal was a review of the future of water charges, leaving the nation at odds with the EU, and reaping the worst of all worlds. However, Fianna Fáil was "out of the water" for now at least.

Since then, Fianna Fáil has projected well. While the Independent Alliance ministers struggle to make the cultural shift to government, and the price of responsibility over popularity, Fine Gael has been left struggling trying to do the right thing without the necessary parliamentary numbers.

Fianna Fáil and Micheál Martin have managed to look like the more mature and collected ones. They are now busy flexing their muscles ahead of the Budget, on October 11.

This is also the public perception as they are once again the most popular, according to opinion polls, albeit a very pale shadow of the party's glory days before the February 2011 meltdown.

A Behaviour & Attitudes opinion poll for the 'Sunday Times' yesterday put the party on 28pc, five points clear of nearest rivals Fine Gael.

Ironically, while the talk two years ago was all about Mr Martin's longevity, today all leadership speculation centres on Fine Gael's Enda Kenny and Sinn Féin's Gerry Adams.

Neither Mr Martin nor Fianna Fáil has time or space for self-congratulation.

They are trying to put their stamp on the upcoming Budget. They realise they could be easily outplayed by the Independents in government who could upstage them as "friends of the underprivileged".

They must also watch the volatility within Fine Gael and keep calculating how they react to a change of leadership without seeming unduly self-interested.

The good news is that Mr Martin is on a high. The bad news, however, is that he's on a tightrope.

Irish Independent

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