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In Martin, FF now has a prizefighter

A collective sigh of relief more than bellows of jubilation from the rank and file of Fianna Fail marked the election of Micheal Martin as the party's eighth leader.

His composure and humility at his first press conference did more to boost the morale of the party faithful then any rabble-rousing speech could ever have aspired to do. The subtlety with which he distanced himself from the two most recent incumbents was a master class in communication skills, 2011-style. Quietly, politely, fatally, he delivered the crucial blow when he stated: "One of the ways in which politics has failed is that our elections have been dominated by soundbites, personality and political tactics." But it will take more than polished press conferences to re-build a party that has been shaken to its very core. A party facing decimation in the General Election. Mr Martin has an uphill battle.

It's obvious from the outcome of most of the selection conventions throughout the country that those in Fianna Fail charged with planning the election utterly fail to grasp their change in positioning as a political party. They are entering this election as a minority party with just 16 per cent support. They trail Fine Gael which is on 34 per cent and Labour on 24 per cent.

Fianna Fail selection conventions should have picked the minimum number of candidates in each constituency in order to maximise the vote. They didn't. The end result, in many constituencies, is that Fianna Fail will split the vote and fall precipitately down through the ranks as they get no transfers from anyone.

It's now too late for Mr Martin to implement a completely new strategy; all he can hope to do is damage limitation.

That said, the party's new leader is a breath of fresh air in a political system suffocated by the oppression of back-room politics and snide personal attacks. The speed at which he was out of the traps with a call for full and frank debate on the national issues has left Enda Kenny reeling. Kenny's limp response was a rejection of the debate between the three main parties, claiming it should be between all party leaders. If it didn't contradict his already expressed preference for a three-way debate, and if it wasn't delivered from a position of near silence in media for several weeks, the Leader of the Opposition's point might have some value. It would be no harm to subject the economic "policies" of parties like Sinn Fein to proper public scrutiny.

The problem for the Fine Gael leader is that nobody believes this fact was behind his plea for a five-way debate. As a debater, Martin will wipe the floor with Kenny -- and Fine Gael knows it. Traditionally, Fine Gael and Labour have fought elections on the TV and Fianna Fail fought them on the doorstep. That is why a summer election always favoured Fianna Fail. The electorate were out and about and less likely to be glued to the telly. This time, it's different. The soldiers of destiny no longer have an abundance of troops in the trenches, they no longer have a solid base to work from and they need to fight on the bigger stage but, boy, do they now have a prizefighter. The most dangerous kind -- where the mannerly and courteous exterior conceals the spine of steel running through him. His main benefit right now is to give focus and direction to the party faithful still standing.

Fianna Fail will take a hiding this time out. Of that there is no doubt. The election will not be for the faint-hearted.

As far as the rank and file membership are concerned, anything that rows Fianna Fail back from its present position will be a victory for Martin. The election will give people the opportunity to get to know him. To see what he's made of. To experience a different kind of political leader in Ireland. It gives traditional Fianna Failers a reason to vote for the party, and something to fight back with. It gives them hope for the future. Martin can set the stage for the 2014 local elections and 2015 general election. Remember, he's in for the long haul. His real work as party leader starts after this election.

Over the past few years, for reasons best known only to a chosen few, Fianna Fail moved away from promoting local party membership and hands-on involvement in favour of central membership with communication from head office via new media. Members of the cumann, people who had always been the backbone of the organisation, felt alienated, cut off. They were even denied their usual platform for national party participation at an ard fheis.

While the use of new media is vital in our current world of internet social networking, the loss of face-to-face contact with party members was detrimental to an organisation whose very structure made it a national movement. It was akin to all local GAA matches being organised from Croke Park without the vital knowledge of promoters and organisers in situ.

Twitter, Facebook, email are all essential means of communicating with the electorate. However, none is a substitute for party structure on the ground. Each is a complement to party structure on the ground. Fianna Fail ignored that to its peril, and as a result, Martin faces the task of re-building the organisation from its very roots while providing the injection of energy and vitality that has been sadly lacking in recent years.

Micheal Martin may not be enough to save Fianna Fail from the loss of a substantial number of seats, but he might just give the party a good spinnaker run.

Sunday Independent