Micheal Martin: a leader who looks weak and indecisive because he is
If it's not already too late, Micheal Martin needs to choose what sort of Fianna Fail leader he wants to be
Published 31/05/2015 | 02:30
Someone once said that the essence of leadership is being able to see the iceberg before it hits the Titanic.
Micheal Martin, captain of the good ship Fianna Fail, certainly didn't see the danger coming last weekend. Perhaps he was locked away in his cabin, celebrating Bobby Aylward's victory in Carlow- Kilkenny - the party's first by-election win in 19 years. Perhaps he thought the good mood which suffused the country in the wake of a Yes vote in the same-sex marriage meant that the political waters were calm enough to leave the bridge unattended for a while.
Either way, the Fianna Fail leader was left looking like Irish politics' answer to Captain Edward J Smith, a man no longer in control of his own ship, and fated to go down in history as the one in command when it finally sank
Martin wasn't the only one who failed to see disaster looming. On Monday morning, the Irish Times editorial predicted the FF leader would be able to use the by-election to "silence his critics". But it's not their job to see problems before they happen. It's his.
By lunchtime, that optimism lay in tatters, as Senator Averil Power quit the party with a speech on the plinth of Leinster House that was scathing about her former leader's lack of leadership ability, not only over the gay marriage referendum, but other matters as well. He was, she said, a "leader without followers", but it wasn't so much what she said that did the damage as the stunned, indeed hurt, look on Martin's face as he struggled to defend himself. In due course, he went on the attack, claiming that Power was suffering from pique after he refused to "orchestrate" it so she was the sole FF candidate in the new constituency of Dublin Bay North. But it was already too late.
He looked like a leader who had lost control, and that's what voters would remember.
Martin might not be in this mess had he shown half the ire and fire against the infighters in his own party as he did towards Averil Power. Martin is in danger of sleepwalking into a situation where the old guard in FF reasserts itself and takes back the party from the reformers, just as the Labour Party did in the UK at the end of the Blairite era, with similarly disastrous results.
The difference was that, in Ed Miliband, the dinosaurs had a leader who was instinctively sympathetic to their cause, whereas Martin was supposed to be the modern face of the party.
Suddenly he's surrounded by those wolves in sheep's clothing, all just waiting for him to put another foot wrong so that they can pounce. Power challenged him face on, but the real danger comes from those you can't see because they're hiding in the shadows. Leadership is about defending the party against those who attack it, but it's also about challenging those inside it who are either surplus to requirements or else doing the party image harm. Power didn't fit into either of those two categories, but still clearly felt unappreciated.
Instead, when facing yesterday's men in FF, Martin has looked weak and indecisive; and a leader who looks weak and indecisive usually looks that way because he is weak and indecisive.
Power is not the only iceberg on FF's sea - some obstacles look more like Eamon O Cuiv, who seems to think that FF can time travel its way back into power, 1950s-style - but she is a powerful symbol of the party's problem adjusting to the post-2011 defeat, post-recession reality. If FF's future is to look like anything, it has to look like Power, rather than, say, Sean Haughey; yet it is Haughey who now seems set to be selected in Dublin Bay North, despite being kicked out of Dublin North Central at the last election when his share of first preference votes almost halved. Power failed to take a seat in Dublin North East in 2011 either, but she was contesting that seat for the first time, and at the worst possible time, and can hardly be expected to take the same responsibility for the collapse of the FF vote as a man who'd been a TD since 1992 and served as a minister of state in previous FF governments.
The Sean Haugheys in the party needed to step aside to allow FF to rebuild with new and younger faces. Physically, at 53, he's still a young man, but politically he is ancient; he and the 36-year-old Power look and sound as if they are from different worlds. Unlike her, he's also inextricably linked with former regimes whose memory remains electorally toxic.
Haughey may win a seat, but is it worth it if it's at the expense of the brand? Who looks more like modern Ireland? Haughey has conceded that, like many FF TDs, he didn't canvas for a Yes vote in the gay marriage referendum.
That doesn't mean he voted No, he refuses to say, but it does put him at odds with the constituency, which is made up of the whole of Dublin North Central (69pc Yes), together with most of
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Dublin North East (67pc Yes). It's not automatic that those who said Yes will reject the non-canvassing Haughey - social attitudes and political allegiance do not overlap so neatly - but it does make the fight potentially trickier.
Has Fianna Fail given up on the hope of building a broad base again, settling instead for a policy of managed decline?
Former Cork TD Noel O'Flynn thinks Martin's problem lies in his roots in that former regime, but it really doesn't. He has the character to unshackle himself from them if he chose, and the personality to persuade people the change is genuine; and, given a free hand, his instincts would surely take FF in the right direction.
But waiting until he had a free hand before stamping his authority on the party in this way has ultimately meant he'll probably never now be able to put those instincts into practise.
He had a thankless task holding onto traditionalists in the West, whilst recapturing former Dublin heartlands which have moved left, but making a show of doing both, whilst actually doing neither, was never going to work.
Now, more than ever, he's a prisoner of those wanting to make a pitch for the socially conservative base in order to snaffle up the 700,000 people who voted No to gay marriage.
It sounds like a recipe for disaster. As Republicans have discovered in the US, social conservatives won't stop voting for fiscally conservative parties just because they become a bit more liberal, but fiscal conservatives will abandon a party that falls into the hands of the intolerant.
Whichever way he goes, Micheal Martin has to make a choice, because these internal crises are distracting FF from its duty of going after the Government and holding it to account for its own skeletons. Democracy and transparency both require a forceful opposition. Micheal Martin is fundamentally decent, with an unwavering commitment to public service, not to mention one of the most blisteringly effective bulwarks against Sinn Fein in the Dail. Irish politics needs a strong FF party. There's a FF-shaped hole in Irish life no one else can fill.
But you can't teach lessons to those who don't want to learn, and you can't save people who don't want to be saved. If FF goes back to being a party which is "male, stale and beyond the Pale", it can't complain if the slogan sticks.