John Downing: 'Micheál Martin has shown some steel – but he still risks missing the big prize'
To many people away from the Leinster House “political bubble” it looked like a storm in an eggcup. But sometimes the smaller dramas can reveal a lot.
And there was a funny side to this little Fianna Fáil melodrama. Two political tearaways, Éamon Ó Cúiv, now aged 68, and Senator Mark Daly, aged 45, literally made a break for the border one night last month.
The pair went to Omagh in Co Tyrone to launch the Fianna Fáil election campaign of Cllr Sorcha McAnespy for next year’s Northern Ireland local elections. On the plus side, the party has committed itself to organising in the North in time to fight next year’s local elections, it is in talks with the SDLP on a link-up, and Cllr McAnespy is a Fianna Fáil member who sits on the national executive.
On the minus side, she was not a formally ratified candidate according to party procedure and the event had originally been billed as a Brexit information evening. Party leader Micheál Martin was left looking foolish, and the pair were clearly on a solo run which looked like an effort to bounce the party into faster action on organising in the North.
Micheál Martin took his time and many felt he might just suck this one up. But on Wednesday and Thursday he moved, sacking Éamon Ó Cúiv from the front bench, and demoting Mark Daly from his role as Seanad deputy leader and foreign affairs spokesman.
It was a display of steel from a man who has had to manoeuvre quietly as his key party members took a diametrically opposed view to his on key issues around the abortion debate over the past couple of years. Few at Leinster House doubt that Micheál Martin, who has been in politics since 1985, served as a senior minister for 13 years, and been party leader for eight years, can pack a punch.
It is a safe bet that there will not be major immediate ramifications arising from his disciplinary action. Mark Daly, a senator since 2007, is talented and able, but still a minor figure in the organisation.
Éamon Ó Cúiv does pack quite a punch in the wider organisation. But in the parliamentary party he has few allies and Mr Martin can bank on being able to cope with more of the Galway West TD’s idiosyncratic behaviour.
So, the Martin supporters can chalk the week’s events up as a positive. They can even claim that he will take strength from it all.
But all of that said, Micheál Martin and his party still face a big problem. Fine Gael remain a nice bit ahead of his party in the opinion polls and it would not be wise to force an election early next year, even assuming the Brexit crux is resolved.
However, many Fianna Fáil backbench TDs remain restive and somewhat despondent. With a buoyant economy and a continuing sheen of newness attaching to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, they fear the slide in their popularity will continue.
There are signs that Micheál Martin favours an extension of anything up to a year on the confidence and supply deal which underpins the minority coalition, and is currently the subject of talks about renewal between the big two parties. It is in Mr Martin’s interest to have these review talks drag on – but it is hard to see them dragging on much beyond the year’s end.
Come the new year Fianna Fáil and its leader will face a real moment of truth. The choice is to stay and suffer continuing popularity loss – or strike out and prepare for an election in very adverse circumstances.
Unless something radical happens to change the political landscape, Micheál Martin still risks being the only Fianna Fáil leader in its 92-year history never to have been Taoiseach.