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Time for Martin to show he can be a real leader

MICHEAL Martin must be wondering why he bothers. What is the point of him trying to breathe new life into Fianna Fail when so many of his colleagues seem gripped by a death wish?

FF's presidential election dilemma has now turned into a Grade A fiasco -- and if it's not resolved at today's parliamentary meeting, the Soldiers of Destiny might as well lock themselves in a room with a bottle of whiskey and a revolver.

The situation is desperate. A party that should be far too small for splits is now completely divided over whether to support the veteran FF senator Labhras O Murchu, help David Norris or Dana into the race, or just sit tight and hope the whole nightmare goes away. Meanwhile, their eccentric deputy leader Eamon O Cuiv is threatening to emulate his grandfather in 1926 and form a breakaway republican party all of his own.

An opinion poll last weekend underlined FF's predicament by putting them at an all-time low of 10pc. More importantly from a psychological point of view, they have officially fallen behind Sinn Fein for the first time. The Shinners decided to run Martin McGuinness mainly as a tactic to kill off their nationalist rivals, but right now FF are doing a pretty good job of pressing the self-destruct button.

The Labhras O Murchu affair should be nothing more than a bad joke. An elderly, uncharismatic, right-wing senator who resigned the party whip in protest against the civil partnership bill, he is light years away from the new image that Martin is trying to create.

Incredibly, however, some FF-ers seem to be taking the idea of President O Murchu seriously -- yet another example of just how out of touch they have become.

While even a weak leader like Martin should be able to show Labhras the door, dealing with Eamon O Cuiv's ego is much trickier.

Dev Og has always been a bit of a fundamentalist, but claiming that FF should return to its 'dancing at the crossroads' era is bonkers -- even by his standards.


His comments on last night's TV3 documentary were ominous, threatening the kind of mass walkout that really could kill off the party for good.

All this boils down to one basic problem. Seven months after its election massacre, too many FF-ers still have no real understanding of why the public hates them so much. The party can now be divided into two camps -- realists who know that they need a complete makeover for the 21st century, and dreamers who think that a back-to-basics approach will soon see them back in power.

Of course, Micheal Martin must take some of the blame himself. Asking Gay Byrne to run for the Park was a gamble that failed to pay off, while he seems to be incapable of imposing discipline. The Cork choirboy is adding to his reputation as a bit of a ditherer, a skilled communicator with nothing much to communicate.

To be fair to Martin, however, he cannot make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. Eamon de Valera himself would struggle to control the rabble that now passes for the FF parliamentary party, a bunch of headless chickens more interested in fighting themselves.

Martin now has three main objectives for today's FF meeting. He must settle the presidential issue once and for all, probably by sticking to his original decision of not supporting any candidate at all.

He must put manners on O Cuiv, spelling out exactly why the deputy leader's romantic fantasies would put the party on a road to nowhere.

Above all he must assert his own authority, making it clear that he will not tolerate a repeat of last week.

Earlier this year, FF quietly celebrated its 85th anniversary. There is no longer any guarantee that the party will be around for its 86th.