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Fionnan Sheahan: Baptism of fire for Martin on long road to recovery


Micheal Martin struck a chord with his party colleagues when he told them how he became the first member of his family to go to college.

It put him in stark contrast to fellow leadership challengers who were born, relatively speaking, with silver spoons in their mouths and into political dynasties.

While in University College Cork, Martin studied a Masters in Political History.

His thesis was on the establishment of party politics in this country from 1918 to 1932. Fianna Fail emerged from the fractures of the Civil War during this period.

After becoming leader yesterday, Martin conceded the 2011 General Election will be the party's most difficult hurdle in its 85 years in existence -- one that threatens the very future of Fianna Fail.

"We are facing the most challenging campaign Fianna Fail has faced in its history. Of that, let there be no doubt," he said.

Currently scraping the bottom of the barrel on just 14pc of popular support, the prediction of "electoral annihilation", as Willie O'Dea put it, for Fianna Fail is valid.

Martin himself said last week the party needed to be up in the region of 20pc to 25pc by the start of the general election in order to stave off a level of losses that would put it not only in opposition -- but playing second fiddle on the opposition benches.

The immediate task for Martin is to shore up the losses and put on a floor on the falloff in support.

Fianna Fail's new leader needs to give Fianna Fail supporters a reason to vote for Fianna Fail.

Of the 72 TDs who voted on the leadership yesterday, Martin knows a quarter will be retiring next week and he'll be lucky to come back with 30 to 35 seats after the election.

The new leader heads into the veritable baptism of fire as he goes straight into a general election campaign.

Immediately on becoming leader, Martin began to try to rebuild Fianna Fail's damaged reputation by starting to say "sorry" for the economic mistakes made by the Government.

After serving for 13 years in Cabinet, he fell short of a categoric, comprehensive and complete apology for the role of his party in the meltdown.

But at least he didn't try to blame Lehman Brothers or say he accepted responsibility. So Martin is at least ahead of his two predecessors on this front. He didn't volunteer the apology, but it didn't have to be dragged out of him.

He can rightly expect to face more questions on the culpability front again in the coming weeks. His best bet is to just keep on apologising, because he's on to a loser if he tries to defend it.

Martin does have a problem when it comes to admitting to specific mistakes from his own time as a minister, particularly from his period as Health Minister.

The penchant for commissioning reports, the flaws in the reform of the structures of the health system, which resulted in the setting up of the HSE, and his handling of the scandal of illegal nursing home charges stand out.

Martin proved to be adept at evading trouble. Anybody who works with him claims he is strong, good at taking advice, making a firm decision and sticking to it. But a reputation for indecision still dogs him.

Over the coming days, he will have to pick a new deputy leader for the party and a party frontbench to take it through the general election campaign. The message of freshness will have to emerge from his new line-up. If there is a hint of overly rewarding his supporters in the leadership contest, he will come under fire and murmurings of more of the same will be circulating.

Highly aware of his image, Martin will be careful to ensure there are not over-the-top celebrations in Cork marking the elevation of "Our Meehawl", to avoid alienating parts of the electorate.

After the election, the real task of rebuilding his party will really begin.

He will have to troop the high roads and by-roads of the country on the infamous "chicken supper circuit" to cumann meetings and constituency functions.

Martin's communications skills are unquestionable. But his real leadership and the substance behind the style come under the microscope now that he is at the helm. He will have to be strategic and ruthless in his decision-making.

Martin is liked and likeable. But his self-styled saccharine sweet persona will inevitably have to sour.

A leader can only be effective if he is not afraid to make enemies. Figures in the party are bound to be disappointed when others are promoted and there will be disagreement over the direction he brings the party.

Despite bringing his party back from the brink, Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny found out that loyalty and gratitude only goes so far.

Martin won't be blamed for the result of this general election but Fianna Fail will want to see some progress on the road to recovery. Fianna Fail's road back will be long.

Irish Independent