Daniel McConnell: Martin has steadied the Fianna Fáil ship — but where is it headed?

Micheál Martin has turned around his own fortunes and those of his party — but many are now asking what Fianna Fáil stands for
Daniel McConnell: Martin has steadied the Fianna Fáil ship — but where is it headed?

Taoiseach Micheál Martin was so unpopular within his party just a year ago that a heave against him seemed inevitable. Picture: Niall Carson/PA

If you had asked a year ago would Micheál Martin see out his term as Taoiseach, it was at best a 50:50 bet.

So loathed was he within his own party over the poor start to this government, his overly cautious handling of Covid-19 and poor opinion polls, talk of a heave had elevated beyond mutterings over pints or cups of coffee.

But Martin is now in a different space. The heave is no more and the rebels have fallen away, with the noisiest one, Marc MacSharry, quitting the party altogether.

The Fianna Fáil ship is as steady as it has been and Micheál Martin is facing no challenge to his leadership before the proposed changeover with Fine Gael, which will see the current Taoiseach resigning his office and becoming Tánaiste under Leo Varadkar.

Micheál Martin speaking at the 2022 Cork Company of The Year Awards at the Cork Chamber Annual Dinner in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, for which the Irish Examiner was media partner. Picture: Michael O'Sullivan
Micheál Martin speaking at the 2022 Cork Company of The Year Awards at the Cork Chamber Annual Dinner in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, for which the Irish Examiner was media partner. Picture: Michael O'Sullivan

Martin is enjoying somewhat of a reprieve compared to the maelstrom of chaos and calamity which defined the opening 18 months of his tenure as the leader of the country.

A number of TDs and senators put the change down to the party’s think-in in Cavan last September which acted as a sort of group therapy session and allowed much of the built-up angst to be aired and the air cleared.

Others have pointed to internal structural reforms including on the party’s communications team, now led by former broadcast journalist and producer Siobhán Russell, as significant advances in the battle to win new, younger voters.

The ending of the emergency phase of the pandemic has also eased the political pressure on him and his handling of the Ukraine crisis to date has been well received, as reflected in his greatly improved personal popularity figures.

So over is the heave, that even his greatest internal enemies say he “can go on for as long as he likes” as there is no one looking to take him out.

My canvass of 25 members of the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party, including ministers, TDs, and senators, has made that clear.

“He is having his Taoiseach moment,” said one critic who added that the party is far calmer these days.

Others have said Martin has “squeezed the life and soul” out of the party and has targeted believed dissenters to limit their ability to undermine him.

Suspected leakers at the weekly parliamentary party meetings have had people assigned to monitor them and sit beside them to ensure leaks to certain journalists don’t happen.

They complain that PP meetings have become weekly “state of the nation” addresses for the leader and there is now little or no opportunity to question him or ministers.

Previously noted rebels have simply stopped attending or meaningfully engaging at the meeting, as they now see it as a lost cause.

However, with the purported heir apparent Jim O’Callaghan left damaged after the disastrous Dublin Bay South by-election last July, there is no one to challenge Martin for now. According to one TD: 

He has steadied the ship. Let him become Tánaiste. Commitments were made to backbenchers. He has honoured some of them, so let’s see where we are in 12 months. 

However, even though Martin’s fortunes have improved, the party’s haven’t, and it is still languishing at below 20% in the opinion polls, behind both Sinn Féin and Fine Gael.

Speaking to me, one TD said Mr Martin has abandoned the leadership of the party, in favour of the country and as a result, the party is lacking in any ambition.

“He seems happy to be at 20%, there doesn’t seem to be any ambition to get Fianna Fáil up beyond that. There is not an ounce of radicalism there and some are operating on a basis of suspended disbelief. For him to be content at 20% is a sign of the malaise at the top,” said one TD.

What some TDs and senators as Martin’s “utter lack of ambition” mean the party is at risk of being totally overshadowed when Varadkar and Fine Gael retake the top office in December.

While Jim O’Callaghan has been damaged by the events of the past 12 months and his refusal to accept a junior ministry in 2020 annoyed many would-be supporters, he is not out of the mix to succeed Martin.

Jim O'Callaghan's prospects of succeeding Micheál Martin as leader of Fianna Fáil have taken several hits but his chances are far from over. Picture: Sam Boal/RollingNews
Jim O'Callaghan's prospects of succeeding Micheál Martin as leader of Fianna Fáil have taken several hits but his chances are far from over. Picture: Sam Boal/RollingNews

A couple of his colleagues speaking to me questioned his desire and hunger to become the leader.

However, what is clear is that O’Callaghan’s chances of becoming leader are far from over.

Six of the 25 canvassed said they would plump for O’Callaghan with those speaking in his favour still see him as the ideal candidate to take over the leadership given the party’s weakness in Dublin.

Significantly for O’Callaghan, one understands that former minister Barry Cowen is still willing to throw his weight behind the senior counsel if and when a move is made.

However, my survey of the PP tells me that Martin’s constituency colleague and rival Michael McGrath is the preferred choice to be the next leader, as things stand, with 11 of the 25 picking him. Most see him as “a safe pair of hands” and as someone who has performed well.

He is one of a few senior party people to have kept in touch with people who lost out at the general election before their entry into the Seanad.

Some have also noticed that McGrath has “stepped up” his social media profile including pictures of his children to “round out and warm up” his public persona.

Others have said that their support for McGrath “is expected” when the time comes.

While Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien has long held leadership ambitions, it is clear from my canvass of the party that he is someway behind McGrath in terms of support and his chances are dependent on how successful he is in delivering houses.

However, what has been noticeable from speaking to the party is the strong level of support for Government Chief Whip Jack Chambers who several suggested as a potential leader, if not next time then into the future. According to one party elder: 

He is young, energetic, and has been brilliant to the backbenchers, especially on the sports grants. He is projecting an image the party badly needs. His stock is definitely rising.

Given it is clear Martin will become Tánaiste, the conversation turns to what he will do when it comes to December’s expected reshuffle and quite a number have said they would want to see Chambers elevated to the full Cabinet.

However, one senior TD cautioned against both McGrath and Chambers given their pro-life stance which they said would be a turn-off to the wider public.

A smaller number of party members say Dara Calleary cannot be ruled out as a potential leader and is held in “extremely high regard” by his colleagues.

Many again see Calleary as having paid a very high price for his attendance at the August 2020 Golfgate event and is deserving of another chance to be in Cabinet.

'He has steadied the ship. Let him become Tánaiste,' says one TD in reference to the Coalition deal under which Taoiseach Micheál Martin (right) is due to swap roles with Tánaiste Leo Varadkar. Picture: Brian Lawless
'He has steadied the ship. Let him become Tánaiste,' says one TD in reference to the Coalition deal under which Taoiseach Micheál Martin (right) is due to swap roles with Tánaiste Leo Varadkar. Picture: Brian Lawless

However, one of the primary takeaways I have taken from my chats with Fianna Fáil members is that as a party, it still has very little idea of what it wants to stand for.

It does not know if it is a liberal party or a conservative party but it is certainly not the centrist catch-all party that its leader wants it to be.

So overall, Fianna Fáil is certainly a steadier ship than it was, but it is clear that is most unsure of what direction it is going.

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