IS Micheál Martin the right man to take Fianna Fáil forward?
The question has arisen again following the publication of the Mahon Report, and its devastating findings against former taoiseach Bertie Ahern.
The tribunal found Mr Ahern had lied about the origins of £215,000 which flowed into bank accounts connected to him in the early to mid-1990s.
The inquiry utterly rejected his claims that the money came from “whiparounds”, “dig-outs”, loans and so on.
The problem for Micheál Martin is that he was a member of all of Mr Ahern’s cabinets and was a staunch defender of the then taoiseach throughout the period when he was being grilled by the tribunal.
Mr Martin accepted all of Mr Ahern’s fantastical evidence, said he believed it, and continued to support him.
From Sept 2006 after it first emerged that Mr Ahern was under investigation by the tribunal, through the 2007 general election and into the first months of 2008, Mr Martin stood fully behind his then leader.
In one sense, none of that is surprising. Fianna Fáil believed in loyalty to the leader and clinging to power at all costs. In terms of realpolitik, Mr Martin was merely doing what was necessary to protect both Mr Ahern and the party’s grasp on power.
Yet we like to think we can have politicians with backbone, who are not afraid to speak out when they see obvious wrongdoing, even if it’s by one of their own.
As a cabinet member, Mr Martin was one of the most senior politicians in the country at the time, and failed to speak out.
He failed to do so even as it became obvious to anyone with a brain that Mr Ahern was spinning fairytales at Dublin Castle.
What’s more, Mr Martin even queried why the tribunal needed to question Mr Ahern about issues such as his marital separation and living arrangements.
It was Mr Ahern himself who fell back on his marital separation as part of his convoluted — and untrue — explanations for the money in his accounts.
Hence, the tribunal had little other choice but to examine such matters, because it was Mr Ahern who had raised them in the first place.
Nonetheless, in Dec 2007, Mr Martin told Today FM: “I think he has explained in fairly understandable terms the situation after his marriage break-up, the situation in terms of his providing for his daughters’ education and so on, and the whole situation about where he lived and St Luke’s. Now, to be honest, I found that to a certain extent unnecessary — that he had to go into that detailed explanation.”
As one reporter suggested to Mr Martin yesterday, he was either a “knave or a fool” during this period.
Mr Martin appeared to opt for the “fool” defence, insisting he did believe Mr Ahern at the time, only to be subsequently disappointed and angered by the tribunal findings.
As defences go, it’s pretty unconvincing — not up there with Mr Ahern’s “I won it on the horses” defence, admittedly, but not exactly edifying either.
Mr Martin would have us believe that, as one of the sharpest, most experienced politicians in the country, he could not see through Mr Ahern’s evidence for the tissue of lies that it was.
Now, he insists he is the right man to drag Fianna Fáil from the cesspool into which the likes of Mr Ahern, Charles Haughey, Pádraig Flynn, Liam Lawlor and Ray Burke led the party.
He will take a major step next week by having Mr Ahern, Mr Flynn and some former councillors expelled.
But will that be enough, as he hopes, to distance the party from Mr Ahern’s toxic political legacy?
If Mr Martin was a relatively new TD unconnected with the Ahern era, it possibly might.
But it seems doubtful that the public will buy the image of a “new Fianna Fáil” from a man who was so enmeshed with the old version — even if Mr Martin himself was not found to have done anything wrong by the tribunal.
It’s not just the Mahon Report and the payments to FF politicians which causes difficulty for Mr Martin, of course. He was also part of the Cabinet that presided over the economic crash. He recently apologised for the mistakes FF made in government. The apology was politically necessary. But again, it would have been easier for FF if the leader making that was unconnected to the mistakes.
Micheál Martin is a heavyweight politician but his own baggage may now be a heavier weight than he and FF can carry.
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