Monday 22 January 2018

Fianna Fail: Back from the brink

There was a buoyant mood among the Fianna Fáil faithful this week as they gathered in Co Clare at a monument to their most successful statesman, Éamon de Valera. Micheál Martin, party leader, was given a rapturous reception after he laid a wreath in driving rain at the commemoration.

Almost two years ago, this was a party that was almost left for dead.

It was obliterated in parts of the country, decimated in Dublin, and turned into a rural rump elsewhere. It clung on to just 20 seats.

With Fianna Fáil almost a byword for economic calamity, incompetence, and political graft, there were question marks over the very survival of the once all-conquering political force that Dev had founded.

Micheál Martin was being described in all seriousness by the punditocracy as the "first leader of his party who will never be Taoiseach".

But, as in the case of Mark Twain, rumours of the death of Fianna Fáil seem to have been much exaggerated. This week's Behaviour and Attitudes Poll showed the party re-emerging as the biggest opposition party on 22pc, seven points ahead of Sinn Féin.

Most gratifying of all for the party was Martin's rating as the most popular party leader in the country on 42pc.

Dr Theresa Reidy, lecturer in politics at UCC, said: "You cannot read too much into a single poll, but a series of polls has shown that the Fianna Fáil is on the way back up."

It could so easily never have happened for the Corkman, who used to be referred to as "the dauphin". He was Bertie Ahern's heir apparent for a time, but then saw himself eclipsed by Brian Cowen.

By the end of 2010, with Cowen's government stumbling from one disaster to the next, Micheál Martin had suffered such a year of personal trauma beyond the world of politics that some local observers wondered whether he might give up his political career.

In October of that year his much-loved daughter Leana died at the age of seven. In a most moving tribute at the funeral, the TD recalled family holidays in Courtmacsherry in west Cork, and cycling to Timoleague to feed the ducks with Leana on the back of the bike holding a loaf of Brennan's bread.

Leana, who died of a cardiac complaint, was his youngest daughter. Martin and his wife Mary O'Shea have three other children – Micheál Aodh (18), who is a reserve goalkeeper for the Cork minor football team, Aoibhe (16) and Cillian (12).

It was not the first time the couple lost a child with a boy Ruairí having died in infancy in 1999.

Micheál Martin's political career mirrors that of his adversary Enda Kenny in one important respect. Both have spouses who are close political advisers and strategists while staying firmly behind the scenes.

Both Mary O'Shea and Fionnuala Kenny (nee O'Kelly) worked together as party officials for Fianna Fáil during the Haughey era before the latter's political elopement.

Mary O'Shea is seen by some in the party as the "real driving force" behind Martin's meticulously-oiled political machine. Terry Shannon, a local party activist, says: "Mary would be very astute politically."

The couple met in UCC where they were students. According to Fianna Fáil lore, a local party official prevailed upon Martin to ask Mary out. She initially turned him down, but changed her mind a month later.

As Micheál trained to be a teacher, Mary became Fianna Fáil's national youth organiser.

It must have taken some courage, and some would say uncharacteristic decisiveness, on the part of Martin to finally move to oust Brian Cowen in the tumultuous January of 2011. One close political ally said: "He is not somebody who likes to carry the dagger."

Other senior figures in the party – including Brian Lenihan and Mary Hanafin – seemed to be paralysed by political inertia. Martin, perhaps belatedly, decided it was time to act.

Martin had shown a similar streak of political ambition near the start of his career when the then leader Bertie Ahern discussed the possibility of him becoming an opposition spokesman.

When there was no firm job offer, Martin rang him back later and told the Fianna Fáil leader he could "do a good job in education''. Within three years, at the age of 36, he was Education Minister.

Referring to this later, he said, "A dumb priest never got a parish.''

When Cowen finally called it a day, disappearing to Offaly, Martin fitted the bill as his successor more than any other Fianna Fáil figure.

He was seen as the perfect antidote to Cowen's poisonous legacy.

Whereas the gruff Cowen notoriously stayed up late at his party's think-in, skulling pints, singing ballads and sounding hungover the following morning for a radio interview, Martin is the epitome of the clean-cut, presentable leader.

At his first party think-in as leader last year, observers inevitably clocked the exact time he went to bed – 11.10pm. As one present noted, he was just short of using a megaphone to order a warm glass of milk.

Unusually for an Irish politician who has filled the health portfolio, he is a picture of good health as a youthful 52-year-old.

His enthusiasm for a nutritious dietary regime has been said to border on the obsessive.

Much to the chagrin of his cookie-loving colleagues, he banned biscuits from cabinet meetings when he was health minister, insisting that only fresh fruit be served.

The salad and green-tea enthusiast also banned fried breakfasts from Fianna Fáil headquarters during the election campaign, and has been known to berate political acquaintances about what they are eating.

His quirky diet once landed him in trouble in Limerick before a hurling match when he produced a home-prepared picnic of crab claws, brown bread and salad in a seating area outside a bar. The publican was not pleased.

Perhaps Martin's greatest talent has been to manoeuvre himself deftly to avoid being hit by the manure that was flying in the direction of his party, as it was mired in scandal and blamed for the economic disaster.

In a documentary last year, he rubbished Brian Cowen's budgetary record and his poor communication skills. But he failed to mention his own prediction in April 2008 that Cowen would be an "excellent leader".

One political adviser to the last Fianna Fáil/Green coalition said: "You have to remember that Micheál Martin was there all the way through the Ahern and Cowen era as a minister. He stood by them as they cut taxes, increased spending and threw fuel on the fire."

He is fortunate that some of the senior party figures associated with the crash – including Ahern, Cowen and Mary Coughlan – have disappeared from the scene. While the old guard is beginning to fade from memory, Martin has promoted fresh young faces such as Senator Averil Power and Michael McGrath.

Johnny Fallon, a former member of Fianna Fáil's National Executive, says: "Fine Gael and Labour will only be able to tell Fianna Fáil that they were the big bad guys, who got the country into this mess, for so long."

After his election as leader, Martin wisely chose to put aside his dietary reservations and go on Fianna Fáil's famed chicken-in-a-basket circuit. He has toured relentlessly, visiting every constituency in the country in a bid to revive morale in his party. In the past fortnight, he has been to Mayo and stirred up the troops at a dinner for 400 in west Cork, as well as paying homage to Dev in Clare.

His allies suggest that Martin wants to regain Fianna Fáil's pre-eminence among that group described by Myles Na gCopaleen as "the plain people of Ireland''.

His political ally Terry Shannon says: "He wants to show that Fianna Fáil is the party of ordinary people. We no longer take corporate donations."

Johnny Fallon said: "Micheál Martin has succeeded in restoring morale by talking to his members. Now his task will be to show the public that the party is trustworthy, and has a meaningful message.''

Almost two years after he emerged from the wreckage of the last Government as one of the few survivors, he can boast that the Soldiers of Despondency are Soldiers of Destiny again.

Johnny Fallon believes that Fianna Fáil can play a role in the formation of the next government, as Labour's support ebbs away. The doom-laden predictions that Martin would be the first Fianna Fáil leader not to become Taoiseach may prove wide of the mark.

"I still wouldn't bet my house on him becoming Taoiseach," says Fallon. "But if he continues the trend and we see another rise of three or four percent in the polls, and Fine Gael dipping, he will be in with a very real chance even at the next election."

Then, Micheál really would have performed a miracle.

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