Sunday 15 December 2019

Celia Larkin: Martin must find a unique cause to rally public support for the forgotten party of Irish politics

The Fianna Fail leader has little time left to get his political mojo back in a changed landscape, writes Celia Larkin

When Micheal Martin is in a debate, he's great. When he gets his teeth into something, he's great. He won the treaty debate hands down on Tuesday night. Great.

The tragic fact is that if he was leading the large centre party of yore, he'd be flying. But he's not. He's trying to lead a small party, including ostentatious dissidents such as Eamon O Cuiv, against a massive government majority, with Sinn Fein snapping at his heels and a bunch of independent and extremely media-friendly TDs competing with Fianna Fail for airtime.

Above all, Fianna Fail can no longer be a catch-all party. We have two catch-all parties in Government. We don't need another one waiting in the wings.

Fianna Fail is on 15 per cent at the moment. It could garner that much support by standing for anything. For heaven's sake, it could get 15 per cent for being a pro-hierarchy party, even in the midst of the current controversy around Cardinal Sean Brady.

It could get the same level of support for being an anti-DIY party, calling for all DIY ads to be banned from TV. Indeed, an anti-DIY stance might get it another few per cent. Anything that distinguishes it, characterises it, gives the public a handle on it, would attract public attention to it and move it from being the forgotten party of Irish politics.

Right now, though, it has no clear policy that differentiates it from Fine Gael and Labour. It is not progressing in the polls because it is not carving out a niche for itself. It's not just that it's running on fumes. It's running on yesterday's fumes.

Fianna Fail no longer has to please all the people some of the time. It needs to please a section of the people most of the time. It's a different mindset for a party that, only a little over a year ago, needed to take the whole population into account when deciding on policy.

The party Micheal Martin joined, served in and became leader of, was a centre party, sometimes left, sometimes right but always with an eye to being in government. That party's position on the political map no longer exists.

It's a frightening time. But it's also an exciting time. It's an issue Fianna Fail needs to tackle head-on. If it is ever to hold the balance of power in any government, it needs to represent some particular group of people, otherwise what's the point?

At the moment, Sinn Fein is streets ahead on the influence side. It represents a cohort of people who disagree with everything the present Government does. Sinn Fein isn't worried whether its own policies are feasible or not. It doesn't care if there is a section of the community who hates its guts.

What Sinn Fein cares about is building up a band of followers. Passionate, committed followers. Those passionate, committed followers mean that Sinn Fein is a visible, (very) audible alternative voice and stance in Irish politics, whether you like it or not. It continually tweaks its approach to pander to those on the fringes of its niche audience to attract them in.

A prime example: in the early days of the financial crisis, we witnessed elected members of Sinn Fein kicking at the gates of Leinster House with a band of fairly aggressive protesters. I ventured to ask one of the followers, privately of course, why they would engage in such behaviour when they were in fact elected and could raise opposition to any political measures in the Dail?

They were, came the answer, representing how their supporters felt. Now once they realised that their newer supporters did not want to see their public representatives in scuffles outside the Dail, they moved away from that approach.

Sinn Fein never gets seduced or threatened by the wider public consensus. It couldn't care less about it. It is not interested in what the general public wants. It is interested in what its niche group wants. It has a small, discrete market and if serving the needs of that market makes it unpopular with the majority of voters, so be it.

At this point, Fianna Fail is at the other end of the scale. The wrong end. Fianna Fail was big tent politics, and it still thinks big tent: how to appeal to the most people at any given time, rather than how to establish a small band of supporters who know that the party stands for something that the band of supporters is passionate about.

The party has a limited time in which to identify

what its core value is and where it stands, in a totally changed political landscape. The truth is, Fianna Fail is not going to be a large political force in the foreseeable future. The reality is that it's possible to lose everything overnight, but it's never possible to gain it back overnight.

Fianna Fail's recovery will not happen if it can't distinguish itself from all the rest. And even if it does happen, it will be an incremental uphill struggle.

Winning that struggle will be helped by not making problems out to be bigger than they really are. Micheal Martin should just ignore Eamon O Cuiv for now. Fianna Fail is not in government, it is not going to lose a vote on important legislation because of O Cuiv. He is anti-EU and always has been, so what's new?

This is an opportunity to flush out his followers, but Martin should ignore those yelling for him to discipline O Cuiv.

Fianna Fail supports the referendum, and rightly so. But it's the Government's fight, let it worry about O Cuiv.

Every party has eurosceptics. You can't have a sceptic as deputy leader, but one on the fringes doesn't matter too much, for now.

Fianna Fail needs to focus on what's important for survival. It has its chief. It has its army.

What it is missing is a cause.

Sunday Independent

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