“Wasn’t this just attention-seeking from a marginal member of a marginal party?”
That was one of the questions lobbed by journalists at Éamon Ó Cuív following his announcement yesterday that he was staying put in Fianna Fáil.
In a sense, it encapsulated the party’s situation perfectly — it collapsed in the general election and is still on the floor, despite Micheál Martin’s attempts at rebuilding.
Fianna Fáil is struggling to eke out a voice for itself with its “responsible opposition” stance.
When it supports the Government on issues, such as the fiscal treaty, the Coalition inevitably gets the headlines, and Fianna Fáil gets drowned out.
And when it opposes the Government on issues, it is drowned out by Sinn Féin, who tend to shout louder and harder.
So in some ways, it shouldn’t have mattered all that much yesterday what Éamon Ó Cuív did or didn’t do. Having already lost his deputy leadership and frontbench role because of his views on the fiscal treaty, he is indeed a marginal member of a marginal party.
Yet that marginal party still secured 387,000 first-preference votes in the last general election. And while Ó Cuív is no more than a backbencher now, he still has the capacity to reach a sizeable minority of the Fianna Fáil faithful.
Some 387,000 votes represented a miserable showing for Fianna Fáil in the election.
But they could be a significant swing bloc in the referendum campaign.
To put this in context, the first Lisbon Treaty was rejected by a margin of about 110,000 votes in the 2008 referendum.
So 387,000 Fianna Fáil voters could be crucial in terms of determining the outcome of this referendum.
And Ó Cuív has ensured that the Fianna Fáil message to these voters is a mixed one.
On one hand, you have the firm position of the leadership and the frontbench that this treaty is a necessary step for Ireland and people should vote yes.
On the other, you have Ó Cuív, with his impeccable party heritage, saying that the treaty is terrible and people should vote no.
Ó Cuív has now taken a vow of silence — claiming he will say no more on the treaty during the referendum, in keeping with the leadership’s wishes. But he may already have said enough in recent weeks to persuade a chunk of the Fianna Fáil faithful to vote no.
And that’s not just potentially damaging for Micheál Martin and Fianna Fáil, it’s potentially damaging for the Government. The Coalition has much more riding on the result of the referendum than Fianna Fáil.
So despite Ó Cuív technically being a marginal member of a marginal party, he could inflict maximum damage on the yes campaign.
The question that few in Fianna Fáil seem capable of answering is what Ó Cuív is hoping to gain from any of this.
One supporter put forward the suggestion that, if the treaty crashes to defeat, Micheál Martin will be vulnerable to a leadership challenge from Ó Cuív. However, the wiser heads in the party point out that, firstly, it is the Government, rather than Fianna Fáil, which would take the blame for a no vote.
Secondly, they say that even in the highly unlikely event of Micheál Martin being deposed any time soon, Ó Cuív wouldn’t get the nod to replace him.
So if Ó Cuív genuinely thinks he has a crack at the leadership in the event of a no vote, he may be fooling himself.
If he has some other cunning ploy up his sleeve then he has yet to reveal it.
And who’s to say the Fianna Fáil leadership don’t have a ploy of their own — namely to allow Ó Cuív remain on board for now and then deal with him once the referendum is out of the way?
Everything suggests that the tensions between Ó Cuív and Martin are far from over.
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