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Future of FF in Martin's hands

IT is difficult to think of a parallel to the circumstances in which Micheal Martin has become leader of Fianna Fail. As one foreign journalist described it, Mr Martin takes over, not as the new leader, but the new loser.

From his point of view, this has certain advantages. His position seems secure, however poor the election result. Indeed, if any of the large group of undecided plump for FF on polling day, what would once have been regarded as a disaster may be hailed as a triumph, with Mr Martin getting the credit.

Credit or no, Mr Martin's role for most of the next five years, we must presume, is that of leader of the opposition. But even that is not the automatic entitlement it would normally be. Fianna Fail's hands will be tied -- or, rather, its lips buttoned -- by a couple of things. It presided over -- and to a large degree caused -- the economic collapse. It drew up the four-year recovery plan and signed the rescue package with the EU/IMF. Its opposition to the economic policies of the new government will be constrained as a result.

No such limits will apply to the unknown number of Sinn Fein TDs who will share the opposition benches. Gerry Adams has found out the hard way again that this does not mean you can say anything, however ridiculous. But the party can more credibly take the populist line which is usually Fianna Fail's stock in trade, to Fianna Fail's detriment.

Mr Martin has an advantage, in this regard, in that he never held an economics ministry. He made good use of that yesterday in immediately delivering an open apology for the party's mistakes in government. It will be said that he was in Cabinet but cabinet government, while collective, is deeply hostile to ministers treading on each other's patch.

As well as re-organising the party, Mr Martin needs to think deeply about why Fianna Fail led the country to the brink of bankruptcy twice in 20 years. The reasons have to do with an out-of-date sense of Ireland and its politics. If Fianna Fail does not change, either the country will leave it behind, or the two will one day go down together again, in another deadly embrace. It would be foolish to assume that an electoral wipeout, however bad, means the end of Fianna Fail. Powerful political brands do not fade that easily. But its image has gone from being the competent party to the incompetent one. Mr Martin must reverse that to have any chance of being Taoiseach -- and perhaps of there ever being a Fianna Fail Taoiseach again.

Irish Independent