Saturday 19 October 2019

The first Fianna Fáil leader to never become Taoiseach

Micheal Martin
Micheal Martin
John Downing

John Downing

MICHEÁL Martin's father, Paddy, was an international boxer who defeated a man who went 12 rounds with Muhammed Ali.

That nugget, little-known outside the northside of Cork city, merits more attention than the usual run of political and sporting factoids. Surprisingly, it can help us understand the durability of a Fianna Fáil leader surrounded by many people with at best limited faith in their own political futures.

Fianna Fáil is on the ropes. Martin is their first ever leader not seen as a potential Taoiseach. In a vastly changed Irish political landscape, this once and recent "natural party of government", struggles to find a message which can even hold potential voters' attention - let alone win over their support.

Martin's party risks being marginalised in an emerging election, big-picture narrative styled as a straight shoot-out between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin. Their support risks further erosion from the plethora of independents, some of whom are seeking to group around new party arrangements.

Within weeks of his installation at Government Buildings in March 2011, Enda Kenny's supporters began gleefully talking about that "FG versus SF" scenario for the next election campaign. One Fine Gael strategist frankly told this writer: "It would scare the voters of middle Ireland enough to give them no alternative other than Fine Gael."

The longer term result is that it could spell the end of Fianna Fáil, an astonishing outcome, given that for several decades, Fine Gael always looked the shakier of these two Irish political lookalikes.

Will the Martin legacy be one of presiding over Fianna Fáil's not-so-slow demise?

The party is at its lowest point ever electorally. It has no women TDs and no TD in Dublin. The opinion polls consistently show the party at below 20pc and no great distance from the electoral meltdown level of February 2011.

The very open internal bickering has not been impressive. Fianna Fáil's "family rows" for much of its glory days were often not pretty, but they were fun and operated on the assumption that there was a prize worth fighting over.

As leader, Martin has had to tolerate some party figures gaining publicity through absolutely vilifying their colleagues, accusing them of being anonymous and devoid of a message.

In the summer of 2013, he was obliged to concede the party's first ever "open vote" during the passage of the Protection of Human Life in Pregnancy Act. His plan was to have the party support the Taoiseach's courageous move - in the end he was in a minority of his parliamentary party voting with the Government.

There were strident and open criticisms of the party's direction under his leadership. The talented but eclectic Éamon O Cuív suggested Fianna Fáil's natural allies were Sinn Féin - something Martin has vehemently repudiated.

On the other side, John McGuinness, who chairs the Public Accounts Committee with something of a dash, looked to "abandon tribalism" and seek links to Fine Gael. There were serious noises off from former minister, Mary Hanafin, and former Taoiseach and leader, Bertie Ahern.

Away from these "family wars" Martin has got a pasting from many commentators. His membership of Bertie Ahern's first team, in opposition and government from January 1995 until Ahern's enforced departure in May 2008, has not helped him present as the man to lead Fianna Fáil to pastures new. His continued presence in government under Ahern's successor, Brian Cowen, until a very belated resignation in January 2011, is an even bigger bugbear.

This reality meant he had little option in the aftermath of the last general election but to frame a policy of "constructive opposition". After all, it was the Fianna Fáil-led government which drafted Enda Kenny's draconian recovery plan in cahoots with the EU-ECB-IMF troika in late 2010. How could Martin repudiate this Government policy? At all events, non-existent Government cash in those dark days made such no-holds-barred opposition look very unrealistic.

For a time he looked like the party under his leadership would be making a marked comeback. Little over two years ago, an Ipsos MRBI poll for the 'Irish Times' rated Fianna Fáil as the most popular party in the country. But the party's good opinion poll ratings were not sustained.

There is no point in trying to gainsay the importance of that. All parties are hugely influenced by the surveys and sometimes try to time announcements and initiatives to coincide with informed guesswork about researchers being in the field.

There is a rather grim irony in all these negative judgments on Martin's leadership performance. The reality is that he has been many times extremely effective in both the Dáil and in his media performances. He is generally on top of the most complex issues, which shows a high work rate and sharply focused concentration.

In Dáil debates he is swift and clever, with a good populist turn of phrase. We can expect Enda Kenny's handlers to minimise direct debates with Martin in the forthcoming election campaign.

Martin is also a better performer than Joan Burton, who has a tendency towards verbosity. He is vastly better than Gerry Adams, who often comes across as not interested enough to follow the detailed briefing produced by Sinn Féin's tireless apparatchiks.

The Martin problem is that too little of any of this travels beyond the Leinster House bubble. The challenge for Fianna Fáil's strategists will be to establish enough fora to show off their leader's skills in good enough time.

But they also need a message for their man and their party. The current Fianna Fáil message is that we need to temper economic progress with looking after the vulnerable.

It is all well and good. But it is also reminiscent of Fine Gael's attempts under Michael Noonan to catch the public's imagination in 2001/2002 with "quality of life" arguments. That one ended in calamity for Noonan and Fine Gael.

Even after eight years of recession, and some public awareness of the need to learn and transfer lessons to the nascent recovery, it is extremely unlikely that Fianna Fáil's high-minded appeals, to put restoring services ahead of cutting taxes, will fly.

The voters are much more likely to listen to arguments about cash in their pockets. They will make their own decisions about quality of life.

Martin has spent the past week, in the run-in to this crucial Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis, pursuing two main themes. His extremely effective challenges to Sinn Féin, and his questioning of their spurious efforts to "claim 1916", will have reassured his traditional party supporters and reminded those who have strayed towards Fine Gael of where his party really stands on that issue.

He has also been busy, easily out-classing Enda Kenny about the sale of Siteserv and other legacies of Anglo Irish Bank. For the first time this year he has made the Government look uncomfortable and flustered.

But the public have yet to make a judgment on these issues. He must be aware that the structures, such as the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation, were put together on Martin's government's watch. This Government will not miss opportunities to conjure up toxic images of Anglo Irish Bank, and a €34bn taxpayers' bill, and lay them at Fianna Fail's door.

But for all the impediments and difficulties Martin faces, he has good grounds for keeping his nerve. He has the largest bank of councillors in local authorities across the country. That critical mass of 266 Fianna Fáil councillors, and their immediate support groups, is not a bad jumping-off point for a general election campaign.

Well attended, if often acrimonious candidate selection conventions, are ultimately a good thing also. Sois presiding over the nation's single biggest party political conference this weekend.

Observers of this largely rustic invasion of the heart of posh Dublin 4 will watch more keenly than usual for indicators of party morale. Can they circle the wagons, as in days of yore, and make common cause against all foes, including 'the Dublin media'? That was always a barometer of Fianna Fáil state of well-being.

Nobody should underestimate Martin's range of skills and experience gathered over almost 14 years in government as alternately Education, Health, Enterprise and Foreign Affairs Minister. He first arrived at Leinster House after the June 1989 general election, which saw his party breach a core value and share cabinet power.

The succeeding 26 years in politics have brought him many conflicts and challenges.

It is not too much of a stretch to make comparisons with his political toughness and that of his pugilist father. To make any of these things count, however, he first and last needs a simple and coherent economic message to take to voters.

This is what everyone in the RDS will be waiting for tonight. On it will rest Micheál Martin's fate and that of Fianna Fáil.

Irish Independent

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