John Dowling: It is Fianna Fail's past sins, not abortion, that will haunt Martin
Published 04/07/2013 | 17:00
THIS is a week Micheal Martin will not be sorry to see drawing to a close.
Fianna Fail is down four points in the opinion polls and on Tuesday night he watched as two-thirds of his TDs voted against the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, which he supported. Only five colleagues took the same view as Mr Martin and voted accordingly.
The Fianna Fail leader's situation switched a little of the attention away from Fine Gael's internal machinations. There were even questions being asked about whether Mr Martin's future as party leader was up for discussion because of this abortion vote.
The short answer to that one is that this issue, while it is not helpful to Mr Martin, will not unseat him as leader. But there is another slow-burning threat in the form of his linkage to Fianna Fail's perceived past sins, which will be a huge obstacle to efforts to reinvent the party.
In fact, there are arguments to suggest that Mr Martin is entitled to some plaudits on his abortion legislation stance. He honoured his pledge not to play party politics with the legislation and his own stance is in tune with opinion polls, which have shown eight out of 10 people believe that this legislation could in fact go further on the abortion issue.
But he could not bring his party with him to support the legislation. Strong convictions by many members were doubtless added to by individual deputies doing a local assessment of how their re-election chances were best served.
The end result for Fianna Fail is that the party looks more rural, middle-aged and male than ever. Once Mr Martin conceded Fianna Fail's first ever free vote for its TDs and senators, there was a certain inevitability of drift to the safe default position of absolute opposition to any form of abortion.
That is undoubtedly why Enda Kenny resolutely ruled out the free vote with such unflinching determination. There are those who argue that Mr Martin could have done some damage limitation by talking up the virtues of the free vote at an earlier stage and in a more vociferous manner.
But at all events it is also clear that this abortion issue is not engaging the average voter. Its impact will be largely forgotten come the autumn when everybody's preoccupation will be the earlier Budget day of October 15.
And in regard to the banking issue, Mr Martin has been taking a battering from Fine Gael and Labour TDs who glory in linking him to the Fianna Fail-led government on whose watch the entire Irish banking system fell asunder.
The Taoiseach himself led the charge 10 days ago when he said the planned parliamentary inquiry into the banking collapse must look at "the axis of collusion between Anglo Irish Bank and Fianna Fail".
Mr Kenny was commenting on the Anglo Irish Bank tape revelations in this newspaper. His comments were supported by Labour's Ruairi Quinn who said the tapes were a timely reminder of Fianna Fail's record.
Mr Kenny did not exactly enhance his credentials in the statesmanship stakes with that performance. And he seriously damaged prospects of a parliamentary banking inquiry being seen as capable of rising above party politics.
But Mr Kenny did inflict some damage on Fianna Fail, with implications for its steady climb back in the opinion polls. Two surveys last Sunday offered evidence that resurrecting Fianna Fail's past plays negatively with the public.
In one, where survey participants were questioned mainly before this newspaper published the Anglo tapes, support for the party was unchanged. But in the second poll, where fieldwork was done just as the Anglo tapes fallout was raging, Fianna Fail was down 4pc.
There is no direct evidence of a linkage – though it is reasonable to suspect that there is one. The issues surrounding the banking collapse in 2008 and the government of the day's responses are extremely complex. But they will pose huge image problems for Fianna Fail, and Micheal Martin was a very senior figure in all Fianna Fail-led governments from June 1997 until January 2011.
There are very rocky times ahead for the Fianna Fail leader which will test his considerable political abilities – and his personal mettle.
Optimists within the party suggest the banking inquiry may prove more awkward than fatal. But opponents will work to reverse the wording of that assessment.