Kevin Doyle: Could Micheál Martin be the first leader to launch a heave against his own party?

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin. Photo: Mark Condren

Kevin Doyle

COULD Micheál Martin be the first political leader to launch a heave against his own party?

That was the question mockingly posed by a senior Government adviser on social media after it emerged that a majority of Fianna Fáil voters went against the abortion referendum.

But it must have crossed Mr Martin’s mind too as he mingled with the crowds in Dublin Castle on Saturday.

The Cork TD will have been more anxious than any other politician as he waited for the exit polls to emerge the night before.

He put his political authority on the line with a Dáil speech that upset and annoyed many of his troops.

But by going against the perceived wisdom of other Fianna Fáil TDs and campaigning for Yes, he has, in fact, saved the party from achieving dinosaur status.

Had things gone the other way, the front page of today’s newspapers might very well be predicting a heave against the would-be Taoiseach.

“I am pleased within myself,” he told reporters at a count centre over the weekend. “I was happy within my own conscience and I was happy to articulate for a Yes because I had assessed it.”

The Yes vote among supporters of other parties was high: Fine Gael 74.9pc; Sinn Féin 74.5pc; Labour 80.3pc; Social Democrats 89.5pc; Green Party 88.9pc and Solidarity/PBP 82.1pc.

Fianna Fáil supporters rejected the proposition by 50.3pc.

So now having rebuilt Fianna Fáil’s credentials on economic issues, Mr Martin must move on to a social rehabilitation. Ireland has changed dramatically. Politics is shifting all the time. But a chunk of Fianna Fáil now looks bogged down in ‘old Ireland’.

While Taoiseach Leo Varadkar makes speeches about a “modern Constitution for a modern people”, Mr Martin is trying to drag his TDs kicking and screaming into this new reality.

Last week there was irritation among some that the leader was so determined to take part in a televised debate he agreed to sit side-by-side with Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald on TV3. There were murmurs behind Mr Martin’s back that if the referendum was lost, it would be the beginning of the end for him too.

While nobody had anything close to a heave plan in place, the constant sniping at the leadership and his team is destabilising.

“Some lads feel he took off on a solo run when he backed the Yes side without even consulting the party.

“Then he goes on TV and is all pally with Mary Lou,” one TD said, before admitting that, in hindsight, it was “probably” the right thing to do.

Another TD who was on the No side told the Irish Independent: “He was on the right side but nobody voted No on basis of electoral gain.”

He added that it would “definitely” have damaged the party more if Mr Martin hadn’t taken his own route.

A sizeable proportion of Fianna Fáil TDs who voted No told this newspaper yesterday they will not seek to block or delay the abortion legislation.

That will be a relief for their leader and allow him to try to take the debate to Leo Varadkar on other issues, such as housing and health.

But there’s no doubt the referendum outcome has weakened his hand in the competition to be Taoiseach after the next election.

The election is Leo Varadkar’s to call between now and November. If it was to take place before the legislation is passed, he can easily argue that Fianna Fáil can’t be trusted on this issue.

After the budget, the power shifts to Mr Martin. However, unless his party can start to make some gains in the polls it would be the biggest call of his career to bring down the Dáil without negotiating an extension to the confidence and supply arrangement.

Mr Martin got it right on the referendum. But when it comes to the election he will need everybody in Fianna Fáil united behind him.