Wednesday 20 November 2019

Whatever the by-election result, Martin will still lead FF

'Nobody is going to come close to blowing Michéal’s house down'
'Nobody is going to come close to blowing Michéal’s house down'

Shane Coleman

Even Fianna Fáil's most ardent supporters might be hard pressed to put a positive gloss on things right now.

Things could get better on that front by the weekend, when the votes for the Carlow-Kilkenny by-election are counted. They could also though get a lot worse. Even allowing for members' belief that the media is out to get them, it doesn't seem like a particularly happy camp.

Privately, senior figures accept it isn't "the most cohesive parliamentary party ever". And, clearly, there is a bit of, what PJ Mara once famously referred to as, "nibbling at my leader's bum", with a couple of TDs making little secret of their leadership ambitions.

It doesn't help that there's also a core of senators who remain angry at how the leadership used the last Seanad election to try and bring through future TDs. And, inevitably, TDs and senators are still struggling to come to terms with Fianna Fáil's dramatically reduced circumstances. That is certainly reflected in a front bench that, some notable exceptions aside, has failed to perform.

There is also criticism of Michéal Martin. And it's not confined to the "usual sources", as the "nibblers" are now dubbed. The centralised nature of his leadership irritates. His reluctance to cut loose and play opposition politics in the manner of Eamon Gilmore and even Enda Kenny in the last Dáil also frustrates some, who complain he is too reasonable and measured. But it's hardly the worst criticism that could be made of a political leader.

And there's also a general acknowledgement that Martin has a near-impossible job. His workload, demonstrated again in Carlow-Kilkenny, is certainly not in doubt.

There is also a feeling in the party that it doesn't get a fair shake-out from a hostile media. And they say they lack the financial resources to by-pass the media with leaflet drops on key issues - such as the party's success in highlighting high variable mortgage rates - as a means of getting their message across. Sinn Féin, in contrast, has no such problem

All of which means that tomorrow, though a very big day for Fianna Fáil, is not quite as big as some in the media are making it out to be. Because Martin will lead the party into the next general election (unless the FF vote collapses in Carlow-Kilkenny, which won't happen). If Bobby Aylward fails to take the seat, there certainly will be a fair bit of huffing and puffing. But nobody is going to come close to blowing Michéal's house down. The vast majority of TDs accept there's simply no alternative to Martin this side of a General Election. They mightn't be overly happy with things but they know there's no leader-in-waiting with a magic wand ready to solve FF's many problems.

However, it would be a mistake to underestimate the significance of the result for a party desperately in need of a lift. Another by-election defeat - even with FF yet again in second place -would be a bitter blow. A Fine Gael victory or - worse but more unlikely - a Sinn Féin success would be hugely demoralising and certainly sharply increase the pressure on Martin. But, with nobody of stature in the party likely to challenge him, and a sense that a messy heave is the last thing the party needs with a General Election months away, he will survive. For most party TDs, it's more important to ensure that come the next General Election, FF has a narrative to put forward.

They regard the British general election, where Labour failed to come up with a message that meant anything to voters, as a "wake-up call". Fianna Fáil will need, in the words of one deputy, to "make sure that we mean something to people". There has been some progress recently on developing policy documents, but more is needed.

Senior figures see health, where they believe Leo Varadkar has had far too easy a ride, and the USC as key issues where the party can gain traction. Of course, an Aylward victory this weekend would help both morale and relevancy. There's a sense that his campaign has ceded some momentum to Fine Gael's David Fitzgerald. But the former TD is very strong in south Kilkenny. Canvassers are also claiming he is pulling first preferences from three out of every 10 houses in Kilkenny city. If that's true - and he can bring out the core FF vote in Carlow - his odds of 5-2 on look well justified.

A win there and suddenly 35-40 seats in the general election seems realistic. After 2011, that's as good as could be hoped for. It wouldn't be enough to make Michéal Martin Taoiseach (and it's still likely he'll end up being the first Fianna Fáil leader not to take that office). But it could end up being the party's most important election result ever. Friday will tell a lot in that respect. Shane Coleman presents the 'Sunday Show' on

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss