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Lise Hand: Humility, modesty and an apology. How things have changed

Martin is taking over a dwindling platoon of demoralised troops who are facing a savage kicking

The M-word was everywhere. Not Micheal, not Martin, but Mistake. It took the new leader of Fianna Fail mere minutes to utter the one phrase which had eluded his predecessor despite numerous attempts to drag it out of him.

"I am sorry for the mistakes we made as a party and that I've made as a minister. Very sorry for those mistakes that we made," he stated at the very start of his first press conference yesterday afternoon.

And there it was -- a straightforward apology which had never been uttered by Brian Cowen. It was the long-overdue admission that sundry 'external forces' aren't the sole reason why the country is in the doo-doo, and an upfront, acknowledgement of where Fianna Fail stands in the dock of public opinion.

He wasn't standing in front of the media in sackcloth and ashes, beating his breast in contrition, and roaring mea culpas to the tune of 'The Banks' (the Cork river not the financial institutions, of course), but by golly it was a start, a baby-step towards a display of humility.

How utterly different it all was from the last time two-and- a-half years ago when Fianna Fail elected a new leader. How far away now seems that sunny day in May 2008 when Cowen was elected unopposed as commander-in-chief of the Soldiers of Destiny who were in power for a third time and sitting pretty in a comfy coalition with pet Independents and the Green Party.

The dark clouds of recession were upon us but the storm had yet to break, allowing the new leader a triumphant, leisurely lap of honour around his native county Offaly.

Not this time, no siree. Micheal Martin is taking over a party in tatters, a dwindling platoon of demoralised and mutinous troops who are facing a savage kicking from a vengeful electorate next month.

So there was no joyous coronation, and no raucous scenes of jubilation on the plinth with Micheal carried like a political poobah on the shoulders of cheering men from the Rebel County.

That's not Micheal's style. Instead he made his way to the tasteful surrounds of the RHA art gallery for an organised press conference instead of plunging into the usual rowdy media versus supporters scrum on the plinth of Leinster House.

Nor did he wend his way up Merrion Street by stepping over the bloodied and resentful remains of his opponents in the leadership contest. In fact, one of the loudest outbreaks of fervent applause as he left for the RHA came from Conor Lenihan who was as giddy as a young one who had just got Jedward for her birthday.

Maybe it was that he had been the clear frontrunner from the get-go -- or perhaps it was that Brian Lenihan was still stiff with the shock of finding himself trailing in in third place behind Eamon O Cuiv. After a not-very suspenseful wait of just over an hour for a result in the leadership contest, the red smoke of Cork billowed over Leinster House at 3.20pm, just as the division bell for a vote on the Finance Bill was called.

A chuffed-looking Micheal slipped into the chamber and took congratulations from fellow Fianna Fail deputies, while a morose Brian Lenihan sat disconsolately a few seats away and former Fianna Fail leader Brian Cowen looked as if he wished he was anywhere else.

But then it was time for Micheal to set out his stall to the media and to try and explain how he was going to breathe back life into the near-corpse. Micheal looked more than a little self-conscious at all the attention -- he had been rattled to hear himself being dissected on the airwaves as he drove up to the conference, but he threw out a brief biography of his background.

And it was far from the posh environs of Cork's merchant princes that he was reared. "I was not born into party politics. My family's values were those of republican nationalism and community involvement. My father worked as a bus driver, helped found their union and was active in many local groups," he explained.

And then he announced that he has invited the other two main party leaders, Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore, to no less than three head-to-head debates, one of them to be conducted in Irish. And what's more, he was happy to get stuck into John Gormley and Sir Grizzly of Adams in head-to-head bouts of verbals.

Now this was new territory indeed, and it's clear the new leader intends to stand by his declaration that he will fight the election "on the ground, on the airwaves and through the media".

But Micheal has always been a canny media operator. If ever one image separated him from Brian Cowen, it was the captured shot of him on the fateful morning of Garglegate in Galway which signalled the beginning of the end for Brian Cowen. For the TV cameras surrounded Micheal as he strolled into the hotel in shirtsleeves after a bracing morning walk, clutching an orange, his fresh, Cork choir-boy face a picture of puzzlement over the palaver in the lobby.

But while green tea may replace pints as the tipple du jour in the leader's nights out on the town, Micheal is going to have to snack on a lot more humble pie to begin the comeback from the floor where the party currently resides.

And everyone's going to be watching the Micheal Moxie index over the coming weeks, to see if he has the stomach for a scrap. For there's no doubt about it -- he and his party are facing into the fight of their life.

Irish Independent