Both on and off the record, and around the halls of Leinster House, Fianna Fáil members are voicing concern that their party has painted themselves into a corner.
Some are more open than others. Padraig O Sullivan, in this paper today, says he’d be open to sitting down with Sinn Féin.
Others have told Micheál Martin as much to his face or over the phone, but have stopped short of saying so publicly.
Although some have serious issues with Mary Lou McDonald’s party, they are willing to accept the new branded unit; others are simply realists, looking to form a government, stay in power, and sort the mounting crises facing the country.
It’s well known that the likes of Éamon Ó Cuív and John McGuinness, who are often at odds with their party leader on Sinn Féin’s mandate, are not the only two voices of dissent.
Some within the party estimate as many as 17 of the 37 elected TDs would be willing to discuss policy with the likes of Pearse Doherty and Louise O’Reilly — and the whispers of a leadership challenge have begun.
“Micheál knows if he can’t get this through an ard fheis there will be a leadership challenge,” said one TD.
Jim O’Callaghan and Dara Calleary have each been mentioned by TDs as a potential new leader as the party regroups after a raucous meeting last week, during which “sparks flew” and home truths were doled out about Fianna Fáil’s poor electoral performance.
Some TDs say they were harmed by the “presidential” style of the campaign, a clear dig at the leader himself, and now they’re stuck, depending on a dithering Green Party and others if they’re to keep their electoral promises.
Looking back at the campaign, Martin’s stance betrays his thinking, believing the party would do so well it would glide into government with only the help of the Greens and Labour.
He ruled out Fine Gael and Sinn Féin in the same breath; the former he said didn’t represent change, the latter because he doesn’t view it as a “normal party”.
On January 23, I wrote a story headlined “Fianna Fail leader rules out ‘grand coalition’ with Fine Gael”, which included the following quote from Martin: “Fine Gael need to come out of government, they’ve been there too long. The people want a new government, that means a completely new government.”
That was six weeks ago.
On Thursday, Martin told RTÉ’s Seán O Rourke he would indeed go into coalition with Leo Varadkar’s party, a day after some “good” policy discussions between the two, so what’s changed?
Martin is a savvy political operator, and knows if he cannot get a government coalition through an ard fheis, his days as leader are numbered.
Disquiet among the ranks has been building for a while. He was briefed by a number of candidates during the election that his attacks on Sinn Féin’s leader were not working.
As one TD put it:
Fianna Fáil suffered in the polls as it failed to separate itself from Fine Gael: It appeared transfer-toxic and couldn’t convince the public it could be an agent of change due to its proximity to Varadkar’s “posh boys”.
To enter a coalition with the very same party because Martin’s leadership had painted them into a corner may very well be cutting off their nose to spite their face, and TDs are saying as much.
A generous estimation says there is only a marginal preference within the party to form a government with Fine Gael over Sinn Féin.
Both are “unpalatable decisions”, as one Willie O’Dea labelled it, as either option risks alienating some voters.
The ógra of the party likewise have come out fighting against a Fine Gael coalition: Two-thirds of delegates voted against such an arrangement, and they have publicly announced they will be fighting on that mandate at any possible ard fheis.
Many within the party fear Martin now faces the very real prospect of making McDonald taoiseach by allowing her a clear path to the main opposition.
In another five years of a Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael coalition, if they cannot solve the crisis in health and housing, and do it loudly, the problems they only thought they had in this election will be multiplied threefold as Sinn Féin bolsters in opposition, blowing the horn of “the two old parties” and making itself the viable alternative.
If it were to come down to a leadership challenge, which could see Martin become the first Fianna Fáil leader in history not to become taoiseach, many will criticise the media, and say the vultures were circling, and baying for a political scalp.
But it would be worth keeping in mind that the media can only report what those in the know are telling them, and that in itself should be pause for thought for Micheál Martin.