Sunday 20 October 2019

No future for Fianna Fail in Middle Ireland minus Martin

Illustration by Jim Cogan
Illustration by Jim Cogan
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Micheal Martin is all that stands between Fianna Fail and melt-down in Middle Ireland. That statement will surprise both political pundits and critics in his own party. But I believe it's true and that I can make a solid case to support it.

A few weeks ago I shared a platform with Micheal Martin at a packed public session of the James Fintan Lalor Autumn School in Portlaoise. As someone who pays more attention to Irish people than Irish pundits, I watched the audience while he spoke. And I was struck by the evident affection he evoked in the audience.

Likeability is a plus in any leader. But it is crucial in the leader of a party loathed by a lot of the Irish people. Brian Cowen was not likeable enough to be endured by a suffering coping class.

Little is heard from the pundits about Martin's likeability. That's because they are too busy repeating the tired refrain that Martin is held back by his links to the past. On the contrary, the public like him a lot more than most of the newbies.

Martin's likeability is matched by his fortitude. He saw his four predecessors as party leader destroyed. He saw his party beaten to a pulp. But if asked what he did during the dark days he can hold his head up and give the same answer as Andy Warhol: I showed up.

Martin did more than show up. Last May, against the stream, he led Fianna Fail to a famous victory at the local government elections. Fianna Fail's 25pc share of the poll could translate into 40 seats at the next General Election.

Last year, he led the forlorn hope of Fianna Fail in a political charge that breached the barricades put up by the media and his own party. Last week, his sensitive handling of the Mairia Cahill case caused major problems for Sinn Fein. Far from wanting to make cheap capital, he had known about the case for two years - but kept silent until Cahill called for his help.

This leads me to make a little prediction. The conventional wisdom is that guessing ahead is a mugs game. But I did well with two predictions in the past few months.

First, I repeatedly warned that water charges would make the public angrier than any other tax over the past four years. Second, I warned potential electoral partners that Sinn Fein's attractions as a political spouse were limited by what might pop up from a past that in political terms was spent on the streets keeping company with criminals.

The big water marches and the massive public interest in the Mairia Cahill case confirm I was on the ball. So I will risk a third prediction. If Fianna Fail is stupid enough to eject Micheal Martin as leader it will lose its last few supporters in Middle Ireland and be as dead as the dodo in Dublin.

Furthermore, if Martin is removed, the large local government gains made under his leadership will not translate into seats at the General Election. Because the bottom line is that Middle Ireland likes Martin more than any alternative leader of Fianna Fail. Above all, women like him because he has the Jack Lynch factor: he is charming, polite and more ruthless than his persona reveals.

And no, I am not ignoring his weak spots. The main one being that he is a bit too politically correct. He pays far too much attention to a petulance of pundits in the metropolitan media. And when he took over as leader of Fianna Fail he was far too anxious to appease the media campaign against Bertie Ahern.

Accordingly, he made one major good move, and one major bad move. The dialectical difficulty is that they were both the same move. Martin rightly apologised for the failings of Fianna Fail. But he wrongly went on to apologise too much and for too long. And failed to follow up by pointing out that Fine Gael and Labour would have done no differently - a point proven by their track record so far.

He also failed to provide a fighting script for his party in opposition. In particular, he failed to tackle the fat cats of the public sector and thus make Fianna Fail the champion of the coping class of the private sector - which is by far the biggest category of voters. This left it no outlet except Sinn Fein.

In fairness to Martin, no Fianna Fail leader would have done any differently. Cosseting the cosseted civil service is one of Fianna Fail's two sacred and suicidal beliefs. The other is the delusional obsession that it should compete with Sinn Fein for control of the low moral ground.

Eamon O Cuiv, Martin's chief critic, returned to that toxic obsession a few days ago. He said he was "massively" concerned that Sinn Fein had stolen Fianna Fail's republican clothes, was moving into some mythical republican centre, and would freeze out Fianna Fail as it had frozen out the SDLP.

There are two problems about O Cuiv's criticisms. First, Sinn Fein did not steal Jack Lynch's republican clothes. The Provos wove their own shoddy green garment, soaked it in sectarian blood, went into politics proudly wearing the blood-clotted rags, and were rewarded by a delinquent nationalist electorate in the North, just as they may be rewarded by a demented coping class in the Republic, aided and abetted by a college class that lacks any moral compass.

The second problem is that the northern nationalist electorate may soon rue the day it dumped the SDLP. Sinn Fein's real interest is now in the Irish Republic. While it pursues this path it will put the peace process on the back burner and return to its tribal roots in Northern Ireland.

But what is really baffling is O Cuiv's curious belief that Sinn Fein would be a suitable partner for Fianna Fail. Can he really believe that the Provos's campaign, with a catalogue of murder and rape, ranging from Jean McConville to Mairia Cahill, can be wiped from the hard drive of history and that Fianna Fail can go happily into government with Sinn Fein?

Last week, Liam Clarke in the Belfast Telegraph pointed out the core obstacle to going into government with Gerry Adams. "His problems are that on the crucial question of getting into government, he is a liability." Micheal Martin has seen that from the start.

The Mairia Cahill case is only the tip of a toxic iceberg. You cannot murder, maim and abuse thousands of people for nearly thirty years without leaving a poisonous legacy with a long shelf-life.

The landmines the Provos left behind will be going off for years to come.

Micheal Martin is a better man than his political rivals. The proof of that is that he has set his face like flint against doing a deal with Sinn Fein. I believe that he knows this would be a moral watershed.

But he must not let the ragged green wing of Fianna Fail go on flapping. A healthy bird never flew with one broken wing. The public would back him if he purged the party of people who have lost the will to win and merely hope to hitch a ride with Sinn Fein.

Can Martin hold his nerve ? Can he find the popular pulse and mastermind a comeback on the scale of the Canadian Conservative Party?

For the health of Irish democracy we must hope Micheal Martin gives it his best shot.

Sunday Independent

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