Micheál Martin has been put on notice that if Fianna Fáil loses the looming Kilkenny by-election, his leadership will be under severe threat.
Senior figures say the contest to replace Fine Gael’s Phil Hogan, slated for January, will be the “crunch” test of whether Mr Martin can lead the party into the next general election.
Failure to win the Roscommon-South Leitrim by-election has boosted simmering discontent within the party against Mr Martin, but rivals have decided to keep their powder dry until the New Year.
“Kilkenny will be the crunch moment for Micheál,” a senior source said.
“This Government will not go full term, there will be a general election late next year, so we need to see a significant improvement in Kilkenny.
“We must win it if he is to lead us into the general election.”
Mr Martin will be urged to up his game at a meeting of the party’s front bench today after Fianna Fáil candidate Ivan Connaughton topped the first-preference poll in Roscommon but failed to gain on transfers as he was overtaken by Independent candidate Michael Fitzmaurice.
Limerick TD and former minister Willie O’Dea tried to steady party nerves by insisting there was no “messiah” waiting to lead Fianna Fáil to better things.
“I say this with the greatest respect to my colleagues — I respect each and every one of them — I look around the table, in my mind’s eye, and I don’t see the messiah and when I look in the mirror I don’t see him either,” Mr O’Dea told RTÉ.
With just 12 to 18 months to go until a likely general election, Mr O’Dea cautioned against a leadership heave.
“We’re in the run-up to a general election,” he said. “The last thing we need now, as we prepare for a general election, is to have a messy and divisive leadership contest and go into the general election a divided party,
“Micheál Martin is extremely hard-working, he’s extremely capable. If he were to be replaced, the replacement would have to come from within the parliamentary party.
“He’s preparing to be the next taoiseach on the basis that Fianna Fáil will be a very significant player in the next Dáil.
“By-elections come and go but, really, what matters is how many seats we’re going to win in the different constituencies in the next general election.”
The impact of defeat in Roscommon was made worse by the high-profile campaign Mr Martin fought there as the party devoted resources to finally taking a by-election seat.
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