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Toughest gig in politics just got worse – FF leader speaks

HE'S had to sack his deputy, SF are nipping at his heels and today he must go into his first Ard Fheis as FF leader. Micheal Martin talks to our political editor, Kevin Doyle.

MICHEAL Martin is under "no illusion" that Fianna Fail are in a dark place.

If a week is a long time in politics, then he might have hoped that people would have forgiven the party in the year since the General Election – but instead he finds himself heading into Ard Fheis still under storm clouds.

Just a few days ago, interest in the meeting outside of Fianna Fail was minimal but if nothing else Eamon O Cuiv’s resignation has gotten them back in the headlines.

“Events, as they say,” laughs Mr Martin at the start of a wide-ranging interview in which he hints that Bertie Ahern could be the next big name to get his marching orders.

The Mahon Tribunal’s report into the ex-Taoiseach’s financial affairs is expected within days and while the Fianna Fail leader won’t speculate on its details, he has promised “a robust” response.

Asked why he thinks Fianna Fail have made no progress in their quest for the public’s forgiveness, Mr Martin said: “I was under no illusion that things were not going to change in the first 12 months. They will change over the next number of years.”

He expects the current Government to survive its full term and even after that won’t say whether he has a chance of winning the next election.

“I know there are three deputies who have left the Labour Party including a minister and the Labour Party seem to be under a bit more pressure than Fine Gael. But given the huge majority that they have there is no reason why they shouldn’t see out the full term,” he said.

If they don’t win that election, Micheal Martin will become the first leader of Fianna Fail not to reach the office of Taoiseach.

“I may not be [Taoiseach]. I’m not going to make predictions that I will be or anything like that,” he said.

“My real yardstick for my leadership is if in four years time you come back to me, is there a new generation in Fianna Fail. People and ideas is how I’m judging the recovery of the party. If that happens, anything is possible. I’m not predicting success in terms of forming a Government after the next election or anything like that. I’m very conscious of the weakened state we are in.

“It’s no secret that in Dublin and the commuter belt we took a real hammering in the last election so that’s a real target for us. We’ve only 19 TDs. The challenge for us is to maximise the impact of all 19.”

But the former health minister claims that his job is being made harder by a national broadcaster that favours Sinn Fein and Labour.

“We did work on Prime Time. It was a detailed grid studying eight months either side of the General Election. What came out clearly on that is that we were unrepresented.

“The public sector broadcaster has to be balanced. Now the Labour Party would not have been treated in the same way, I would suggest, if they were one of the opposition parties.

“We were told some months out from the General Election that there had to be balance on a whole lot of programmes, which we accepted.”

But he is more annoyed that months after the presentation the party have still not received any notable reply from RTE.

“We were waiting for a substantive response from RTE which didn’t come. Three months after we made that submission to RTE we still have heard nothing back from them which is disappointing.”

Mr Martin refuses to give much weight to opinion polls despite quoting figures showing dissatisfaction with the Government standing at 70pc.

But he has to be worried by Sinn Fein’s surge into the mid-20s while his party languishes at 16pc. The Corkman believes this is partly down to Gerry Adams running “the party of total opposition”.

“The European Treaty is coming up and Sinn Fein are saying ‘what can we do to use this to maximise votes for us. Let’s not worry too much about the logic of it or the consequences of it if we don’t have access to the European Stability Mechanism’.”

Making reference to the Aengus O Snodaigh ‘inkgate’ controversy that stunned taxpayers this week, he questioned whether the €53,000 of “taxpayers’ money used to indirectly fund the Sinn Fein party across the county”.

Of Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore, he says: “They promised the sun, the moon and stars and they reneged on every single one of them. I think that has damaged trust in politics and I don’t think they realise that. They took the last budget and they accepted it even though they attacked it left, right and centre. They’ve basically been claiming credit for the late Brian Lenihan’s Budget that cut €6bn and the map he had drawn out for the four years ahead. There is that fundamental dishonesty at the core of what they are about.”

But his own party has been dogged by controversy again this week after Mr Martin forced the resignation of Eamon O Cuiv.

The party leader wants Eamon de Valera’s grandson to continue working with the party – but concedes that he faces “automatic expulsion” from the parliamentary party within weeks.

By the time the Dail votes on the fiscal treaty, Fianna Fail is likely to be dealing with an even bigger crisis in the form of the Mahon Tribunal report into payments to politicians. Mr Martin told the Herald that he has not discussed the likely outcome with Bertie Ahern but warns that he won’t spare any wrongdoers in his reaction to the report.

“We’ve waited so long for it there is no point in pre-empting what the judges might conclude. What I will say is that we are going to response robustly, honestly and upfront.”

Mr Martin will be relieved that the report didn’t come out in advance of the Ard Fheis at the RDS. He said that despite the massive challenges ahead, this weekend could be “a turning point”. Perhaps echoing most activities in Fianna Fail these days, he says: “It’s not going to be stage managed.”

But noting the RDS as the venue is modest compared to Fine Gael’s glitz and glamour plan for the Convention Centre, he said: “We don’t have the wealth quite frankly to host it in the Convention Centre. I think Fine Gael are very much the big money party at the moment.”