Andrew Lynch: Martin must show his killer instinct if he wants to survive

Andrew Lynch

In Micheal Martin's home parish of Turners Cross in Cork, his nickname is Duckie. That might sound affectionate, but in fact it refers to the local TD's reputation for ducking tough decisions. As he settles into his new office today, that image will have to change quickly -- or else the eighth leader of Fianna Fail could well turn out to be the party's last.

Martin starts out with one big advantage. Brian Cowen has left FF in such a terrible state that the new boss can hardly be expected to turn it around in the space of a month.


The party's morale is so low that winning 20pc of the vote on February 25 would be regarded as a good result -- and if Martin makes a few smart decisions, that target should be more than achievable.

After just 24 hours, the contrast between soothing Micheal and grumpy Brian is already obvious. Martin's apology for FF's mistakes may not have been exactly overwhelming, but it was still more than Cowen ever managed.

His challenge to Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore for a series of television debates shows he understands that a leader needs to make things happen, not just react to events.

Martin won the leadership election by a mile for one simple reason -- the camera likes him. He comes across as decent, sincere and cool-headed, not exactly qualities that have been associated much with FF in recent years.

His only real weakness is the perception that he's a bit of a lightweight, which is why he needs to go for the opposition's jugular at every available opportunity.

Martin's first task is to put a new frontbench in place. He should promote the party's so-called 'Ogra generation' as much as possible, dropping the old guard who are now indelibly associated with banking scandals and IMF bailouts.

FF's young Turks may be wet behind the ears, but at least they give the impression of a party that has a future as well as a past.

The new leader will also have to keep Brian Cowen out of sight as much as possible -- because, right now, the Taoiseach is like an embarrassing uncle at a wedding who doesn't know what time to go home.

Martin must then run an election campaign aimed squarely at winning back FF's core supporters, ignoring the floating voters who are lost no matter what he does.

The party may be on the floor at 14pc, but less than four years ago Bertie Ahern was re-elected with a whopping 41.5pc.

Some polls now suggest that up to a third of the electorate could change their minds between now and the election -- which means that if Martin can coax just a fraction of his party's lost sheep back to the FF fold, he could end up with a surprisingly respectable result.

With TV3 and Sky News offering to screen leaders' debates as well as RTE, these television set-pieces will be absolutely crucial.

Martin should press for them to be held as early as possible in the campaign so that he can benefit from any momentum he might get from a strong performance.

As the Lisbon Treaty re-run showed, he is a superb debater on his day -- and if he can get Enda Kenny one-on-one, he should be able to land some seriously heavy punches.

While nobody believes that Martin can actually win the election, the final tally will be critical to his long-term future. If FF win less than 30 seats, he can probably forget about ever becoming Taoiseach.


If he can push that figure up to 40 or more, he has a chance to rebuild the party in opposition and present himself as a credible candidate to lead the next government in 2016.

The king is dead, long live the king. As the prophets of doom line up to write FF's obituary, Martin has less than a month to prove that he can be the party's saviour.

It's time for Duckie to show that he has the killer instinct after all -- or else face the nightmare scenario of his TDs muttering, "Come back Biffo, all is forgiven".