The challenges facing Micheál Martin ahead of his crucial first ard fheis as Fianna Fáil leader multiplied last night after Éamon Ó Cuív sensationally resigned as his deputy.
It followed a major row between the two over Fianna Fáil policy on the fiscal compact treaty, the new set of budget rules for Europe.
Under Mr Martin, the party is supporting a “Yes” vote in the referendum on the treaty. However, Mr Ó Cuív disagrees, saying the party should not support the treaty unless Ireland’s bank debt is significantly written down.
The row came to a head yesterday and saw Mr Ó Cuív resign as deputy leader. He was then effectively sacked by Mr Martin as frontbench spokesman on communications.
It is understood Mr Ó Cuív wished to remain on the frontbench but was told by Mr Martin that this was unfeasible given his resignation as deputy leader.
Mr Ó Cuív’s resignation comes just days before this weekend’s crucial ard fheis.
He was supposed to run for one of five party vice-president positions, and was expected to top the poll. It was reported last night that he had withdrawn his candidacy in a bid to dampen speculation he was planning a leadership challenge.
Nonetheless, his resignation creates an extra headache for Mr Martin ahead of the ard fheis, when he already has to:
* Attempt to distance Fianna Fáil from the tainted Bertie Ahern era;
* Secure support for a fundamental overhaul of party structures;
* Convince members he is the right man for the job despite the party being on just 16% in the polls a year into his leadership.
Mr Ó Cuív had earlier insisted his resignation was not about challenging Mr Martin’s leadership. He said it was solely to do with the disagreement over the treaty but claimed people in the party would try to “blacken” him regardless.
“The machine gets into operation and they’ll try to blacken my name… it will be spun [to suggest] that I had some pique or this is some leadership bid or whatever. There’s nothing like that involved here.”
Mr Ó Cuív remains an FF TD for the time being. But Mr Martin confirmed that he would be expelled from the parliamentary party, meaning he would be classed as an independent TD, if he voted against the fiscal compact in the Dáil.
Fianna Fáil TDs indicated there would have been “some sympathisers” for Mr Ó Cuív, given his political lineage and the traditions he represents. But they said the majority of the parliamentary party sided with Mr Martin, and that the split had been coming.
One TD recalled “the major flashpoint” last year when Mr Ó Cuív disagreed with Mr Martin’s decision not to run a presidential candidate.
“Things almost came to a head at that stage,” the TD said. “The position he [Mr Ó Cuív] occupied was only sustainable for so long.”
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