Tuesday 24 April 2018

For all his great endeavour, the truth is, Micheal will never be Taoiseach

There is open dissent and farce in the once great Fianna Fail party

Eamon O Cuiv and Micheal Martin at the Fianna Fail launch of its programme of events to mark the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Eamon O Cuiv and Micheal Martin at the Fianna Fail launch of its programme of events to mark the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Daniel McConnell

Daniel McConnell

There is something tragic in seeing a one-time giant reduced to a battered wreck, a mere shadow of its former self. Racked with self-doubt, resentment and frustration, yearnings for past glory days are inevitable.

A desire to cling to a belief that what went before is soon replaced with the painful and heart-breaking current reality.

Those left behind to pick up the pieces are filled with resentment as to how the demise came about.

Such "heartbreak", as described by Eamon O Cuiv, about the permeating despair which has engulfed his beloved Fianna Fail, once again leads us to question its future.

Since its foundation in 1926, Fianna Fail has never just been a political party, but rather a cause, a movement to which people swore blind allegiance.

In every village, in every town, in every constituency across the country, since those early days, Fianna Fail was one of three corner stone pillars of society along with the church and the GAA.

From De Valera to Lemass, from Haughey to Ahern, so pervasive was its power, its reach in Irish society, that Fianna Fail was the default party of Government.

For 60 of the 79 years between 1932, when the party first went into Government under De Valera, to 2011, when it was dumped out of office, Fianna Fail had been in power.

In the Shakespearean play Julius Caesar, Brutus tells Cassius: "There is a tide in the affairs of men/Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune . . ."

Throughout its history, several leaders of the party, including Lemass and Haughey, have drawn on this theme in order to sell its image of a party for all men. The party is again at such a tidal moment in its history.

Lemass famously once said of his party: "Fianna Fail is not a class party but a workers' party".

A great catch-all movement of men and women for all levels of society, not just the rich and powerful. A home where the small farmer and the factory worker could belong alongside the men and women of big business.

Correctly seen as a great moderniser and a genuinely transformative figure in 20th Century Ireland, Lemass has often been quoted by current Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin as his template for leadership.

Yet, in 2015, the Halcyon days of Lemass's yesteryear are a distant dream for the under-fire Martin, who faces the very real prospect of being the first Fianna Fail leader to never become Taoiseach.

His party now stands in a near ruined state. Open dissent over the party's current stagnation in opinion polls, a lack of a clear identity, and persistent questions over Martin's capacity as leader are simply the expressions of a more fundamental, existential crisis facing Fianna Fail.

Speaking to me two weeks ago, after a poor Paddy Power/Red C Poll, a raft of the party's front bench gave voice to their anger. One senior TD was so frustrated that he resorted to unparliamentary language to describe the situation: "It's a pain in the hole," he said.

"It is really frustrating. We want to break the 20pc, and if we can do that then happy days. But it is deeply demoralising to our teams who are working really hard," the TD said.

Martin was confronted by some TDs, including Longford-Westmeath TD Robert Troy, over the lack of direction of the party.

"Robert had a right cut off the leader, I never saw him that direct. He said he needs to make sure not to waste the Ard Fheis by making it a stage-managed affair. That he as leader needs to put his stamp on things," said one TD.

"It is depressing all right. Talking to people on the ground, it is bloody demoralising, to the guys we need to canvass for us," said another.

Today's Sunday Independent/Millward Brown poll puts Fianna Fail unchanged at 19pc and well behind on the 25pc it got at the local elections last summer. As a result, the by-election in Carlow-Kilkenny on May 22 has taken on an added importance for Martin, with some TDs saying his leadership may be called into question in the event of a bad result.

Things then came to a head at last Tuesday's private meeting of the parliamentary party after O Cuiv's broadside in this newspaper last Sunday.

He warned the party founded by his iconic grandfather Eamon De Valera was facing "demise" and has said there was an "absolute collapse in self-belief". Mr O Cuiv told the Sunday Independent, Fianna Fail will become a "small niche party".

"If we continue to poll at 18pc, this will see the demise of that Fianna Fail that people know. Fianna Fail will instead become a small niche party like the SDLP," he said.

At the heated meeting, Martin accused some of his TDs of having a pathetic and juvenile lack of discipline and said they owed it to the founders and members of the party to work harder.

Martin also told a meeting of his front bench that many deputies were doing a better job of undermining Fianna Fail than Fine Gael, Labour or Sinn Fein.

Such comments were directed at O Cuiv and Carlow-Kilkenny's John McGuinness, who have both been critical of the party's direction in recent weeks.

Health spokesman Billy Kelleher and transport spokesman Timmy Dooley also contributed, with Mr Kelleher saying some deputies were "spreading despondency" which was "quite despicable".

In a major clash with McGuinness, Kelleher said that those who had been speaking out were being "disloyal" to the party and to the leader.

"I say this not as a friend or foe of the leader, but let there be no ambiguity around this table, there has to be a degree of loyalty to the party and to the leader, and those speaking out must realise that."

The outspoken McGuinness, who repeated his criticisms of the party and its management, insisted that he be allowed respond to what Martin had said, leading Kelleher to say: "There is no responding in this, you accept it or you don't."

All of this occurred after O Cuiv had left the meeting.

Sources have said that after his speech at the end of the meeting, Martin attempted to shut the debate down and told his deputies to go off and reflect on what he had said.

"He sat down and stood up a few times before he could shut it down," said one TD, adding that Martin used a prepared speech once a discussion on policy had concluded.

Martin said the party had an unacceptable "long-term problem with discipline" which had become "particularly pathetic" in the last two weeks.

Comments made in public and private "smack of desperation", he claimed, and played "right into the anti-Fianna Fail agenda".

"I have never agreed with washing the party's dirty linen in public and I want it to stop now," he said, adding that rank-and-file members looked to the parliamentary party for leadership.

"The carry-on for the last few weeks is totally unacceptable, juvenile and futile. We have a collective responsibility to rebuild our party; we owe it to the party founders."

But what happened after that meeting tells a great deal of how deep the divisions are.

McGuinness, speaking to me on Wednesday was defiant in saying that he will not be silenced.

"Politics is about expressing your opinion and shaping the direction of your party. It would be utterly negligent not to do so," he said.

O Cuiv too took to the airwaves to vent his frustration.

"What is breaking my heart is that the party has not made more progress because Fianna Fail has an important role in Irish politics. Our opinions differ on what is needed by the party in order to make some progress, but that is natural in any party," he said.

But then on Thursday night, as members of the party's Ard Comhairle met in Leinster House, further expressions of unhappiness could be heard.

An exercised looking O Cuiv was seen talking to Ard Comhairle members ahead of the meeting. "He was agitating, saying Micheal was attempting to stifle debate. I took it as he was trying to gee us up to have a go," said one Ard Comhairle member.

According to several sources at the meeting, Martin is said to have "lost the head" when challenged by members about Senator Jim Walsh, who last week lost the whip over his opposition to the Children and Family Relationship Bill.

Younger members, including Blackrock councillor Kate Feeney, called on Martin to take a strong stand and throw him out of the party altogether over his controversial views, but the leader rejected such calls, saying he did not "want to make a martyr" of Walsh.

But other criticisms of how things are going were also voiced. "We don't even get minutes of meetings or agendas any more. We don't know if we are coming or going. People coming up from the country to attend these things and no direction. It is appalling," said one councillor.

Away from the specific row last week, all of this bemoaning comes back to the question of leadership.

Micheal Martin, when you boil it down to brass taxes, is a fundamentally decent man.

He decided on the road less travelled and stayed to fight in 2011 when the easier road was to leave politics and take the fat pension as others like Dermot Ahern, Noel Dempsey and Batt O'Keeffe did.

His demeanour was once described as "about 90pc priest".

The soft spoken tones, the clean altar boy hair cut, the family man from humble beginnings narrative all combine with his effective delivery to make him an ideal poster boy for the party.

These elements were the basis for his hugely successful ministerial career at a young age.

But the decency at his core is underpinned by the tragedy of the loss of not one but two of his young children in recent years.

As leader, unlike his predecessor Brian Cowen, he is capable of reaching people outside his own tribe. He is of Fianna Fail, but not in the quintessentially tribal way that Cowen or Bertie Ahern were.

A tremendously hard worker, he has done all he can to help revive the party's fortunes.

But then, why the party's troubles.

Why the stagnation?

After four years, only one conclusion can remain. The public don't buy him as a potential Taoiseach. They have not been able, try as they may, to move beyond the fact that he sat at the Cabinet table for 14 years while the country was mismanaged into bankruptcy. This is and forever will be his Achilles' heel.

So does the party replace him?

Last week, O Cuiv said: "The danger if you decide he is gone is that you replace Micheal with another Micheal."

There is no obvious successor, despite four names regularly being mentioned.

Dara Calleary, Micheal McGrath, Niall Collins and Billy Kelleher - dubbed the four horsemen of the apathetic - have all shown a reluctance to take on what many consider the most thankless job in Irish politics.

This month's Ard Fheis and the Carlow-Kilkenny by-election are now seen as crucial for the party ahead of the general election.

Many within the party have conceded that they will be going back into opposition and the sole focus is to come back with more seats than Sinn Fein. If it does that, then Martin will have certainly done his party some service. If he doesn't, then surely a change of leader is inevitable.

But whichever, the sorry state the party finds itself in shows clearly that for all his endeavour, Micheal Martin is destined never to lead a Government. He is the boy who will never be King.

Sunday Independent

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