Thursday 27 October 2016

Fianna Fáil is back in pole position and for sake of squeezed middle party should stay on course

Published 21/09/2016 | 02:30

Fianna Fáil Leader Micheál Martin addresses the media at the party’s annual think-in, at the Seven Oaks Hotel, Carlow this week. Photo: Conor McCabe Photography
Fianna Fáil Leader Micheál Martin addresses the media at the party’s annual think-in, at the Seven Oaks Hotel, Carlow this week. Photo: Conor McCabe Photography

What a difference a think-in makes. A year ago, with Enda Kenny supposedly a shoo-in to be comfortably returned as Taoiseach, much of the media was writing off Micheál Martin and Fianna Fáil. The Soldiers of Destiny had no policies, no women and no hope.

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Twelve months on, Kenny is indeed Taoiseach, but only of the lame-duck variety. Fianna Fáil is calling the tune from the opposition benches and Martin is odds-on with the bookies to be Taoiseach after the next election.

It's an extraordinary turnaround for which Martin deserves immense credit. It's only September but the nominations for 'Politician of 2016' start and end with him. Nobody comes close in that contest - certainly not any of the other party leaders.

Martin had to correct himself on Monday after a verbal slip when he declared, "We are not in opposition". He meant to say "in government". The mistake, though, was understandable. It's possible to posit the case that Martin is already the most powerful politician in the country.

However, just as everything wasn't as gloomy for Fianna Fáil as commentators painted it a year ago, the widespread assumption Martin will maintain the proud record of every Fianna Fáil leader becoming Taoiseach - and probably sooner rather than later - is premature.

It's true he's currently blessed with his enemies. Fine Gael has the air of a party hanging onto power by its fingernails, with both Kenny and Michael Noonan struggling to assert the authority they once had. Sinn Féin is still internalising, trying to work out how it got out-manoeuvred by Fianna Fáil. Any return by Labour will be slow and painful, while it's fair to say that some of the gloss has gone off the Independents.

No wonder, there's a bit of a swagger about Fianna Fáil these days. But therein lies the danger. Martin rejects it absolutely, but there are unmistakable signs that old-style Fianna Fáil populism - put into cold storage when Brian Cowen and Brian Lenihan courageously decided there was no alternative to tough medicine - is returning.

Demands for a rise in the old age pension; the party's stance on an inquiry into Project Eagle; and its new position advocating the abolition of water charges, all smack of playing to the gallery, rather than the national interest.

The stance on water charges seems particularly opportunistic, cynical even. Perhaps the party is simply acknowledging the reality that, given the outcome of the General Election and the massive public opposition, water charges are doomed. And it would be pointless to continue to fight the battle for their retention.

But there's no denying the huge investment required in the water network and Martin is unconvincing about who would pick up the tab for that. He has acknowledged it will fall to income taxpayers.

But we know from yesterday's Irish Tax Institute report that this means the burden will mainly fall on those on medium to high incomes. This includes many who are relatively modestly paid, while a third of workers pay no tax whatsoever. Fianna Fáil talks of "decency and fairness", but it's hard to see what's fair about that. Or about focusing on cuts to the USC when workers are hitting the top rate of tax at just €34,000.

To be fair, none of the political parties - including Fine Gael - seem to have grasped this reality. All are in danger of missing a trick.

The politics of the past couple of years has certainly been shaped by the AAA-PBP's 'No way, we won't pay' mantra.

Paul Murphy's by-election victory of 2014 resulted in the entire political system shifting leftwards in response. Fine Gael may have more ministers than ever before, but the Programme for Government was essentially a left-of-centre document.

However, Fianna Fáil in particular needs to be careful about going too far in chasing Sinn Féin and Independent votes.

With the electorate hugely fragmented, there are growing signs that many in middle Ireland are fed up.

They, with some justification, believe that they alone are having to foot the bill for everything and are quite unimpressed by what they see as a headlong populist rush to repeat the mistakes of the boom.

Who is representing them? Despite it being its natural constituency, Fine Gael will struggle to harness that vote under Enda Kenny. He's just too unpopular. But things could be different with Leo Varadkar or Simon Coveney at the helm.

While it's only a matter of time before one of them takes over, Fianna Fáil will be hoping Kenny hangs on for as long as possible.

Either Varadkar or Coveney would be a far more formidable opponent for Martin than a mojo-less Taoiseach proved himself to be last February.

Martin and Fianna Fáil can do nothing about the Fine Gael succession.

They can, though, ensure they don't lose the run of themselves because they're ahead in the polls and sniff an election in the air.

The days of the 'catch-all party' are over and if Fianna Fáil tries to position itself as such, it will be chasing fool's gold and leaving itself vulnerable among centre voters to a Fine Gael fightback .

Restrained and relatively responsible opposition - not least in the past three months when propping up the Fine Gael-Independent coalition - has helped bring the party back to pole position.

Fianna Fáil owes it to the country - and the party itself - not to change course now.

Shane Coleman presents Newstalk Breakfast weekdays from 7am

Irish Independent

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