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He's trying hard, but Martin looks like a caretaker

Why does Ireland still need Fianna Fail in the 21st Century?

After three years in charge of the Soldiers of Destiny, Micheal Martin has failed to answer this fundamental question.

He will have one last chance at his party's Ard Fheis in Killarney this weekend, two months before the local and European elections that could finish his leadership for good.

FF heads to the Kingdom in a sombre mood today. Most recent opinion polls show it stuck in the low 20s, only a few points more than the drubbing it received at the 2011 general election.

The party that once saw itself as a great national movement now has no TDs in Dublin, no female TDs anywhere and a front bench not exactly overflowing with talent.

Worst of all, FF appears to be suffering from an identity crisis. It has disowned most of its policies from the Bertie Ahern-Brian Cowen era, but failed to come up with any distinctive new message.

While Martin is making some efforts to rebrand as a caring and sharing party, that approach has limited appeal with Labour and Sinn Fein occupying the same ground.

In opposition, FF has been crippled by one awkward little reality. Enda Kenny's government is basically following the same economic plan that Brian Cowen negotiated with the Troika before he was thrown out of office.

Even when Martin criticises some of the spending cuts implemented by Fine Gael and Labour, he is swiftly (and repeatedly) reminded of which party actually caused this mess in the first place.

DECENT

To do him justice, Martin can at least claim to have steadied the FF ship. The Cork choirboy is a smooth media performer who rarely puts a foot wrong on television. He also comes across as a decent and well-meaning guy, which in politics is half the battle.

Martin's occasional attempts to put the boot into the Government, however, have failed to impress.

Last month he made a huge fuss over a dossier of alleged garda misconduct that he claimed "would make the hairs stand on the back of your neck".

When Justice Minister Alan Shatter was able to show that these allegations had gone through the proper channels, it became clear that the FF leader had overplayed his hand.

No matter how hard he tries, Martin looks like a caretaker leader with precious little chance of ever becoming Taoiseach.

Ideally, he would be planning to step down soon in favour of somebody less tainted by the past.

Unfortunately, he has no obvious successor – with future contenders such as Michael McGrath, Niall Collins and Dara Calleary still desperately short of experience.

For the moment, then, Martin will struggle on. He badly needs a boost from the local and European elections on May 23, but that is by no means guaranteed. FF must at least secure the 25pc it got in those contests five years ago, otherwise some of its TDs will feel that the next general election is already a write-off.

One race in particular should be of huge symbolic importance. FF's Euro candidate in Dublin is Mary Fitzpatrick, a councillor who famously once accused her constituency colleague Bertie Ahern of "shafting" her.

A Fitzpatrick victory would not only be a shot in the arm for FF in the capital, it would also offer some hope that the party is getting over its past.

It might be hard to imagine now, but only a few years ago FF was the most successful political party in Europe.

REVIVAL

Even if the glory days are gone forever, there must be at least a few former supporters out there who can be tempted back to the fold.

However, a revival will only happen if those people see a positive reason to vote FF again and, for many voters, one is not immediately apparent.

Micheal Martin needs to rediscover his bottle for the battle.

If he cannot inspire his troops in Kerry this weekend, the Soldiers of Destiny may soon decide that they need another general.


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