Tuesday 23 January 2018

Fianna Fáil is back from the dead - now Martin faces tough choices

'Mr Martin may not come away with the largest number of seats, but he has a mandate to try to form a government'. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
'Mr Martin may not come away with the largest number of seats, but he has a mandate to try to form a government'. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

The winner doesn't always take it all - as Micheál Martin is about to discover.

Fianna Fáil is back. Five years on the sidelines was penance enough, and the electorate now have the Labour Party to blame for all the country's ills.

The feat is even the more extraordinary because, despite all the talk of renewal and rebirth, if Fianna Fáil is part of the next Cabinet, the frontrunners for ministries will include names such as Willie O'Dea, Éamon Ó Cuív and John McGuinness.

There's a Haughey and a Cowen in the mix - and the man leading the reformation himself spent 14 years in Cabinet.

This is not Fianna Fáil Nua. It's the same Fianna Fáil we've always known, but with an added sprinkle of fairy dust known as social conscience.

Voters clearly believed that Fine Gael had gone native, making massive pre-election promises that we would have believed in the Celtic Tiger days - but are wise to after years of austerity.

In fact Fine Gael had become more Fianna Fáil than Fianna Fáil itself. So people then reverted back to the actual Fianna Fáil. Why have the pretender when you can have the real thing?

Mr Martin may not come away with the largest number of seats, but he has a mandate to try to form a government.

Even the most positive Fianna Fáil members could not have predicted a result like this at any stage in the past five years, never mind the past three weeks.

Since they were obliterated in 2011 and banished to the Opposition benches, Mr Martin's position has been under constant threat.

When he took up the job, much of the commentary focused on the likelihood that he would be the first leader of Fianna Fáil not to serve as Taoiseach.

The media were often blamed for over-egging the unhappiness - but the reality was that he led a parliamentary party of 20, that, like any family, had internal splits.

The grumblers were never co-ordinated enough to start anything close to a heave, although the constant bickering did undermine the leader.

Then there was a bad build-up to the campaign that saw a string of constituency rows in places such as Longford and Wexford over the addition of 'token' women to help with gender quotas.

But once the election was called, Mr Martin rarely put a foot wrong.

Fine Gael relentlessly went after his personal record in government. The public didn't care.

If they were going to get over Fianna Fáil's involvement in the economic crash, then getting over Mr Martin's time in the Department of Health was inevitable - especially since James Reilly and Leo Varadkar haven't a whole lot to shout about.

Instead, Mr Martin's popularity soared, and along with it developed for the first time the idea he was a realistic option for Taoiseach.

The nature of the campaign meant the focus was very much on the leaders of each party, meaning he was up against a man who describes his own voters as "whingers", a man who describes tax cheats as "good republicans" and a woman whose deputy said she wasn't his boss.

Mr Martin stood out for being normal. He is a good orator, competent on figures and came across as sincere when dealing with his past.

But it's not over yet for the Corkman. He now faces a whole new set of challenges that could yet define his leadership. Should he ask his party members to allow him go in as Tánaiste in a government with Fine Gael? Should he force a second election in the hope of overtaking Fine Gael?

Or should he redefine the 'national interest' and try to bring all factions that have won seats in this election together?

His next move could prove a lot trickier than 'winning' the election.

One thing is for sure. He won't be making any sudden moves. Enda Kenny managed to clutch defeat from the jaws of victory and Mr Martin won't want to fall into the same trap.

As Mr Kenny is likely to learn, most political careers end in failure.

But to date for Micheál Martin, it's been a case of the bigger the obstacles, the greater the success.

Analysis

Irish Independent

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