NEW Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin last night began the mammoth task of rebuilding his party's tattered reputation by saying "sorry" for the economic mistakes that have brought the country to its knees.
Mr Martin -- whose party faces devastating losses in the general election -- said governments led by his predecessors Brian Cowen and Bertie Ahern had taxed too little and spent too much.
However, Mr Martin, who has spent the last 13 years in Cabinet, fell short of a categoric apology for the damage done to the country.
His opening salvo as leader of Fianna Fail was seen as an attempt to draw a line under the party's troubled recent past where its credibility on economic issues was destroyed.
Mr Martin's apology went further than any of Taoiseach Brian Cowen's statements on the Government's role in the economic crisis.
Mr Martin said: "I am sorry for the mistakes we made as a party and that I've made as a minister -- very sorry for those mistakes that we made."
The former Foreign Affairs Minister, who resigned last week from Cabinet after serving as a minister since Fianna Fail returned to power in 1997, later said the taxation and expenditure policies of the Government were the greatest errors.
"The biggest mistake we made -- Fianna Fail ministers and collectively as a government -- was that we didn't stand back from the general consensus in terms of raising expenditure and reducing taxes. Basically we reduced our tax base too much, we spent too much," he said.
When asked last night to give more specifics of what exactly Mr Martin was sorry for, a Fianna Fail spokesman said: "I am not going to expand on what he said in the press conference or what he said subsequently."
But Mr Martin did not shift from the current government policy of spending cuts and tax hikes as he headed into the general election campaign. He said the four-year plan agreed with the European Commission was his party's economic policy. "There is no credible route forward for our country without tackling the fiscal deficit. The National Recovery Plan is detailed and open on exactly what we propose. This will be central to our programme," he said.
Mr Martin was elected as Fianna Fail leader following a vote of the party's 72 TDs. He fended off challenges from Brian Lenihan, Eamon O Cuiv and Mary Hanafin.
On the first count, Mr Martin got 33 votes, Mr O Cuiv 15, Mr Lenihan 14 and Ms Hanafin 10.
When Ms Hanafin was eliminated, Mr Martin's tally went up to 36, Mr O Cuiv to 18 and Mr Lenihan to 18. Mr Lenihan was then eliminated because he got less votes on the first count. Mr Martin ended up with 50 votes and Mr O Cuiv with 22.
Finishing in second place, Mr O Cuiv was the surprise package in the campaign and appeared to garner support from a number of Mr Cowen's close friends.
Mr Cowen's spokesman last night said the Taoiseach rejected the idea there was a block of his supporters voting collectively. "The Taoiseach was very careful to not indicate any preference in the leadership contest," his spokesman said.
Mr Lenihan's support was damaged by the outspoken criticism from his brother, Conor Lenihan, over the weekend. The Finance Minister was already in difficulty after accusations last week that he was fomenting dissent against the Taoiseach.