Micheál Martin’s next move could make or break him, writes Political Correspondent Juno McEnroe
Micheál Martin is facing into some of the toughest months of his leadership of Fianna Fáil. As party TDs last night dined in the salubrious coastal surrounds of Malahide in Dublin at a pre-Dáil think-in, there was a nervous energy in the air.
The clock is ticking for the Fianna Fáil leader. He knows it. And there are plenty of gambles and risks ahead.
The Fine Gael-led Government is enjoying a bounce in the polls under Leo Varadkar’s tenure. The opposite is the case for Martin’s disgruntled band of men and women. Fianna Fáil is floating at around 24% in opinion polls, while Fine Gael is in the early 30s.
They may deny it but the increasing gap is worrying TDs, especially the more outspoken, seasoned ones.
In recent days, finance committee chairman John McGuinness claimed the party had no backbone as he called for an election. This was during the same week as the party boss was trying to bat away fears of a gallop to the ballot boxes.
McGuinness is not the only disgruntled TD.
Others worry Fianna Fáil’s recent rejuvenation has reached its sell-by date and that being saddled with the confidence and supply deal — where it stands by the Government — is poisonous.
The decision to essentially offer support for Eoghan Murphy and not back a proposed Dáil motion of no confidence in the embattled housing minister no doubt irks Fianna Fáil’s frontbench.
Of course, the alternative is to collapse the Government support pact with Fine Gael and run to the polls. Even McGuinness must know Fianna Fáil’s fortunes in such a scenario would be limited.
And this is Martin’s dilemma. He must hold fast to the dubious position of criticising the Government while also supporting it. How long does this torturous arrangement last?
The gamble will be Martin’s in the months ahead. If he and Fianna Fáil stay, they risk looking irrelevant, stagnant, and pathetic. If the party breaks free, would it get a bounce with voters?
Fianna Fáil is under pressure to agree on a budget and a renewal of the confidence and supply deal at a fragile time for Ireland, with stability the key concern as Brexit comes racing down the line. It is a political nightmare for Martin wherein he cannot gamble with the country’s future for political gain.
Of course, when in opposition, you are unlikely to gain from the spoils of an economic recovery. Maybe Fianna Fáil will influence initiatives on housing and health but many voters don’t even recognise the reasoning behind the confidence and supply agreement.
On top of this, there is the fact that Fianna Fáil will have almost zero presence in the upcoming presidential race. And this at a time when the party is trying to control the political agenda, with Sinn Féin gaining support and biting at its heels.
One chink of light for Martin in the months ahead will be his party’s build-up to the local and European elections in May 2019.
Fianna Fáil surpassed expectations and poll predictions for the last general election as well as the previous locals in 2014. The same could ring true next May.
Nonetheless, for the time being, Martin is tethered to Varadkar’s full sail, floating in the wind, unable to break free and at risk of going down when the tide turns.
His TDs admit it is Martin’s last chance.
One recently elected young blood yesterday confided: “It is a make or break moment. Go large and flush or bust and go home. He has to be taoiseach.”
It is the biggest gamble of Martin’s career. He will either be very successful in this risky voyage or potentially face into his last months at the helm of Fianna Fáil.