Opinion Comment

Monday 14 October 2019

Gerard O'Regan: 'Trapped in the corner, Fianna Fáil needs to be wary of a sucker punch'

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin. Picture: Collins
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin. Picture: Collins

Gerard O'Regan

It's akin to a boxer spoiling for a fight and raring to go. The rules of the game say he must try and pummel his opponent into submission. And if he gets him on the ropes he should show no mercy.

But what if he has to slug it out - all the while hamstrung by a kind of restraining order? How can he really go for it, if told on no account can he knock out his opponent?

This is the kind of bind in which Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin now finds himself.

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Of course he must be seen to mix it up close and personal with those trying to do him down. But in reality he is barred from really taking the fight to those on the other side. In such a scenario, frustration cannot but abound. Therein lies the cause of simmering angst in the main Opposition party.

The so-called Confidence and Supply deal Fianna Fáil has with the Government has both its leader and his party snookered. They can land any number of blows on Leo Varadkar and the Government. But they can't risk a sucker punch - just in case it provokes a general election.

Meanwhile, Mr Martin's ears must be red from the plethora of advice coming his way since the party ard fheis. 'It's time to call a halt to this madcap arrangement in the Dáil and force through an election', is the clarion call.

The suggestion is that when matters pertaining to Brexit reach an equilibrium in a few months - as it seems they will - he should pull the plug.

The contradictory nature of their current Dáil position certainly has Martin and his troops trapped in no man's land. Yet all the signs are the Fianna Fáil chief will doggedly resist the temptation to do anything rash.

He is determined to hold his nerve and stick with the status quo until some time next year. And the cold hard facts - as reflected in the opinion polls - suggest he is more than sensible to bide his time.

The risk of a general election battle for Fianna Fáil remains unacceptably high. Current levels of support show Martin simply cannot heave his party into a position where he can be confident of bagging more seats than Fine Gael.

It is still a zero sum game and therefore the advantage remains with the incumbent. The way things stand, an election is still Varadkar's to lose rather than Martin's to win.

So he has to wait and see how some cookies crumble. Those voices in his ear urging him to go for it are as of now best ignored.

Martin can be consoled that, in the political whirlpool, 'things are always happening'. A sudden and unexpected own goal by the Government could change his mind overnight. It all depends if he can detect a sudden gust of fair wind.

In the interim, he can claim some deserved accolades for having steered a steady ship in the most trying of circumstances. And despite the debilitating position in which Fianna Fáil finds itself, party unity has largely held firm.

Of course, there are a few high-profile malcontents - and a couple of his heavyweights want to cut and run and become MEPs. But these are headaches to be expected.

The bottom line is Martin's timing as regards prompting an election could make or break a number of careers, including his own. He simply can't afford to get it wrong.

Meanwhile, he has done the State stellar service in his decision not to play party politics with Brexit; his contribution to the debate has been considered and cautious.

For this and other reasons, some punters may feel they owe him. That must be his hope. But it continues to be a slow build rehabilitating a party so wounded in the fallout from the financial crash.

All the while he has to keep a close eye on Varadkar, so that he doesn't pull a stroke and suddenly cut and run. But for now there can only be consolations from the periphery for Micheál.

Such as the line from the poet John Milton: "They also serve who only stand and wait."

Irish Independent

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