Micheál Martin needs to practise what he has preached in the past

The Fianna Fáil leader has vowed to fight until the end, but has he got the mettle to to stand up to his detractors and get them in line before the election, asks Juno McEnroe

Micheál Martin needs to practise what he has preached in the past

SHORTLY after securing the leadership of Fianna Fáil, a sanguine Micheál Martin told a gathering of party followers he would not take risks but, also, he would fight until the end in politics.

The candid language chosen by the newly-crowned leader at the time paved the way for his rebuilding of the party and just ahead of what became very bruising election results.

Four years later, and a plethora of criticisms and dilemmas have begun piling up on his desk.

The Cork South Central TD could be facing his biggest challenge yet, if his detractors are to be believed.

Observers say he is too soft as commander and chief of Fianna Fáil and it could be too late now for him to show his mettle. Certainly, to date, he has given people in the party somewhat of a free rein.

In a post-election speech in 2011, he admitting taking a “political risk” in not committing Fianna Fáil to headline-grabbing spending commitments or gimmicks for the election.

“The soundbite must go out; it must be replaced by substance and detail. We need action and reform, not more of the old politics,” he said at the function in Navan.

It was always going to be a risky tactic; to try and get the public to blindly trust Fianna Fáil once again after the party walked the country into financial ruin. But now, Mr Martin’s main detractors say he is not doing enough to make the party relevant.

His tactics are being questioned, his leadership is under threat and it may not be long before the carpers emerge from the long grass behind a rival for the leadership.

But what are their chances? And what is driving the internal bickering which is beginning to eat Fianna Fáil from the inside out?

Mr Martin faces several predicaments. These include disappointing opinion polls, which show party support levelling out at between 17% and 18%; internal criticism from the likes of Galway TD Eamon O’Cuiv who says the party could be facing ‘demise’; the loss of a senator and a councillor in just one week and pressure to win the upcoming Carlow-Kilkenny by-election after the party lost the last six contests.

Moves to oust Mr Martin are being mooted and, much to his chagrin, Mr O’Cuiv broke ranks (again) last weekend. He said a “great lassitude” had spread and there had been an “absolute collapse in self esteem”.

The Galway TD, grandson of Fianna Fáil founder Eamon de Valera, certainly chose his words carefully.

They had followed mutterings by Public Accounts Committee chairman John McGuinness when the Kilkenny-based TD told RTÉ recently he would like to lead Fianna Fáil but was unlikely to gain enough support.

Privately, party figures also point to Mr Martin’s poisoned past as a Cabinet member in the last government.

Indeed, it is one of the Coalition’s favourite punchlines during Leaders’ Questions in the Dáil chamber to again and again remind him of the mistakes Fianna Fáil made under his watch as a minister.

Another shortcoming may be Mr Martin’s reluctance to lay down the law for TDs, senators and others.

While he had a list of 10 preferred candidates for the last Seanad elections in 2011, there was no dictum put out to those eligible to vote on who they should back. This resulted in a number of veteran party figures, not on the list, returning to the Upper House.

In the same vein, Mr Martin gave TDs and senators a free vote on the Coalition’s abortion legislation.

The same scattered approach was adopted to the local election campaign of former minister Mary Hanafin, who nearly elbowed Ogra Fianna Fáil president Kate Feeney out of the ring in Blackrock, south Dublin.

Party insiders say that critical comments on the direction of the party are allowed. Mr O’Cuiv faces no disciplinary procedures after his extraordinary predictions.

But maybe the time has come for discipline. Mr Martin’s detractors point to a possible leadership heave if the party fails to win a seat in Carlow-Kilkenny.

Realistically though, it would be a suicidal move. As yet, no general election date has been nailed down. But all parties must have their stalls set out for a run at the polls by early next year.

This means Fianna Fáil would only have six months to recover from an internal bloodbath and settle its nerves after a leadership battle.

Others also note the best card up Mr Martin’s sleeve is that ultimately there is no one figure with the calibre, profile or experience that he has. Moreover, his replacement, if it occurred, might face their own heave if next year’s election campaign proves disappointing.

Limerick TD Willie O’Dea said yesterday that nobody wants a “dictatorship” in Fianna Fáil. If that’s the case, Mr Martin still needs his detractors to fall into line before the election campaigns begin in earnest.

In conclusion, it is worth recalling one of Mr Martin’s most poignant lines during the speech in Meath four years ago where he outlined his ambitions as the new leader. If Mr Martin is forced to draw swords, he will fight until the end.

“The greatest lesson I learned in life was to never give up, never go down in a fight and always keep fighting till the final bell.”

More analysis and viewpoints here

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