| 4.8°C Dublin

Alison O'Connor: Yoga fan Micheal must bend over backwards to apologise

Yoga. It's not a word, a practice or a state of mind you'd ever usually associate with Fianna Fail. But I remember a conversation with the new Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin a number of years ago where he mentioned how he'd recently had a chat with his fellow Corkman Roy Keane on the merits of taking up yoga, not long after the footballer revealed the wonders that the practice had worked for his fitness.

I recall thinking how a poster with the two of them doing the sun salutation could work wonders in a billboard campaign. But back then that wasn't really the Fianna Fail cup of tea, as it were. Martin was still viewed with scepticism by a number in the party who were a little suspicious of his clean living ways. They felt there was too much of the altar boy about him, not to mention how trigger happy he was when it came to commissioning reports and hiding behind them. For a long time he was known as the 'former future leader of Fianna Fail'.

But fast-forward to today and his colleagues are hoping that the Corkman will be their salvation as they face into a general election meltdown. That salvation may eventually come, but they had better realise, like he appears to, that it could take a decade.

The way things stand they may get somewhat of a dead cat bounce with the new leader. He could well bring in a few more seats than expected, saving them from a fatal wounding. But no mere mortal is going to save Fianna Fail from the electoral drubbing the voters are determined to deliver.

It's as if a national catharsis is needed and the public will only reach some sort of closure on the traumatic events of recent years if they get to give the party a pounding.

Despite all the handwringing of the previous months over whether it was too late to change leaders, and the complications of having a different party leader and Taoiseach, Martin's election on Wednesday immediately seemed like the right thing to do.

Enda Kenny, who re-appeared in public view in recent days, gave the new Fianna Fail leader a great start by running so obviously scared of his leaders' debates proposal.

It's a long time since Fianna Fail had even the remotest opportunity to celebrate anything. But you could sense the relief of having someone in charge who appears to be emotionally consistent, up for the battle ahead, and willing to employ political logic where it is needed.

Oh, and of course we mustn't forget that he said he was sorry, indeed "very sorry", for the mistakes the party had made in the past. It made the headlines the next day and was a new departure for a Fianna Fail leader -- but the vague nature of it and the equal attempt to push blame on to the opposition parties gave it a half-baked quality.

If Martin and his new frontbench don't want to spend the next five years being asked over and over about the ruination of the country they'd want to be expanding on that apology. It doesn't matter what kind of a dynamite manifesto they might come up with; that subject will be the dominant one. It's a politically toxic boil he needs to lance now and it will be a measure of his leadership skills if he chooses to do it.

Mary O'Rourke's suggestion that Fianna Fail canvassers needed a new 'catechism' for this election was characteristically daft, yet somehow logical. It's clear that everyone in Fianna Fail, from the top down, has no clue what the party stands for and how to sell it. The FFers will need to be doing even more than acknowledging the mistakes of the past. Martin must tell and show them exactly how.

Again, it's all relative. A few weeks of Martin's leadership is not going to make a major difference for the party. But if things continue to go well for him it could mean the difference for the party -- from dropping so far as to make recovery almost impossible, to winning enough seats to allow a rebuilding over a long period viable.

Most immediately we will get to see Martin's mettle tested in the decisions made on the party's electoral strategy. Martin is going to have to tell it straight in the constituencies where selection conventions remain to be held. In other constituencies, where too many candidates have been chosen, he will actually have to remove people from the ticket. I'm trying to imagine the conversation between himself and Tourism Minister Mary Hanafin if he decides she is the one to move from Dun Laoghaire to Dublin South.

There is some speculation that he is considering appointing Brian Lenihan as his deputy. This would be a surprise, but also has some logic in that Martin is not just from Cork, but exudes Cork, and a strong Dublin link is needed, especially considering the party's dire shape in the capital.

Lenihan is also one of the few relatively safe bets in terms of getting re-elected. Incredible as it may seem, there was an expectation in some quarters that PJ Mara, the man who gave us 'showtime' in 2002, was to have been director of elections for the party this time. But that is one appointment the new leader will not be making.

How the FF rebuilding project progresses will also depends on the new government and how well or poorly it performs over the next few years. His inner circle would attest to Micheal Martin's occasional testiness and inclination to spread the blame. But his most prized virtue in times to come may well be a Zen-like approach to whatever comes his way.

Irish Independent