Daniel McConnell: As Martin reaches promised land, the knives are out in Fianna Fáil

"On several levels, it has been a week that has exposed many deep and worrying sores within the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party."
Daniel McConnell: As Martin reaches promised land, the knives are out in Fianna Fáil
Fianna Fáil's Cork North-West TD Michael Moynihan has accused Taoiseach Micheál Martin of "disrespecting both him and his community" after being overlooked for a junior ministry. Photo: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

Micheál Martin has been Taoiseach for one week.

A week, I’m sure, of immense pride for him personally at finally reaching the office he has sought for so long.

All those hard years in opposition, the battles he has fought within his party, the huge sacrifices he has made as well as the personal tragedies he and his family have had to endure.

Finally, and at last, he has his reward.

But, on several levels, it has been a week that has exposed many deep and worrying sores within the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party.

From the overlooking of “angry and disappointed” Dara Calleary which has festered all week to the snub by Jim O’Callaghan of a junior ministerial role.

From his former chief whip and county colleague, Michael Moynihan, blasting Martin for overlooking him to Willie O’Dea’s highly-charged comments about insulting the people of Limerick.

Even yesterday, party veteran John McGuinness added his voice to the criticism of the appointments.

Unlike the others, McGuinness didn’t just focus on his own sense of disappointment — rather he identified a more systemic problem with the choices Martin made to fill the ministerial ranks.

The Carlow-Kilkenny TD set out a vision of a party dominated by “unelected officials” who have a huge influence in decision-making. He highlighted what he sees as the Taoiseach’s great weaknesses, adding that he does not think Martin will last the half-term he is to hold the office before handing it back to Leo Varadkar.

“When you stand up for people and you put party politics to one side, it brings you into conflict with the institutionalised system that is there. If you measure loyalty by the number of times you kiss ass during a parliamentary party system, then I would fail badly. Unfortunately, there is less and less room for characters like that,” he said.

“What does suffer is the political system where you have a leader, led by unelected officials in decisions which are more to do with personality as opposed to anything else — the system fails, he said.

“Those who lost out are victims of deception. You are looking at the raw world of internal politics. The murky world of political party politics is something I have always detested. It is always about dragging the individual back not rewarding those who deserve to be rewarded. I am not talking about me, I am talking generally. It probably happens in every party,” he added.

“But when you have a system that is dominated by unelected people, then it happens all the more. Then you need a strong leader with a strong personality to get over the inputs of unelected people who are trying to settle scores or promote people who are their choice. I think politics in Ireland has suffered badly because they appoint geographically as opposed to the best person for the job,” McGuinness added.

McGuinness went on to make clear that such discussions about who will succeed Martin have already begun.

“He was no sooner elected as Taoiseach and that discussion [about who would replace him] was happening throughout Leinster House within the party membership. His term as Taoiseach is limited because he has to hand over to Leo Varadkar in two and a half years."

Will he last the two years, he was asked.

“Probably not,” came the blunt response.

“Probably not because of the fact there will need to be a successor selected. I won’t be liked for saying but that’s the fact of the politics and the way is played internally and that is a reality. I face up to these realities, the reality of not being selected because I speak my mind, I speak for the people and that will always be the case. It is better and you are more loyal to set out your position, let people know where you stand rather than playing the political game with a long knife in one hand and speaking out of the two sides of your mouth and in appointing ministers and junior ministers that was probably the case more than the other,” he said.

Asked if he thinks Martin would make a good Taoiseach, he responded: “If Micheál was to throw away the shackles of an institutionalised politician he might make a much better one."

“He has not been behaving in an open and forthright way in his appointment of his ministers,” McGuinness said.

Now McGuinness has often been disregarded by the powers-that-be in his party over the years as a disgruntled crank and his comments yesterday are likely to be dismissed as “John being John”.

While he is not always right, McGuinness on so many occasions has been on the side of the angels on issues that really matter.

Look at his work on the Grace case as one example. Look at the key role he played in defending and elevating the case of Garda whistleblower, Maurice McCabe. Finally, look at his work as chair of the Oireachtas Finance Committee where he led the charge against the banks on behalf of the victims of the tracker mortgage scandal.

His pronouncements on his party have legitimacy.

Martin has long been a distant or aloof leader of his party whose members tolerate rather than love him.

While McGuinness is the latest TD to speak out publicly against the choice of ministers, many others disappointed are making their displeasure known privately and Martin is very much in the firing line.

The sense is among some is that with just two and a half years and no more ministerial positions to hand out, Martin’s authority is now severely undermined.

“He has no authority, the emperor has no clothes,” said one disgruntled TD who sought to compare his troubled party to Fine Gael.

“The Fine Gael guys are a pleasant bunch, they’ll show up sober for work and on time. Leo, Paschal and Simon Coveney all have shown to be competent during the pandemic and then you look at some of our guys,” the TD said.

As Taoiseach, Martin now finds himself where Enda Kenny was in 2016.

People knew he was not contesting the next general election as leader and therefore the authority and power of his position were already beginning to ebb away.

But to where is it ebbing?

Calleary, as deputy leader, has managed to come out of the events of last week with his internal position enhanced and the outcry shows the extent of how popular he is among the party’s rank and file.

Such popularity could convince the heretofore loyal deputy to begin the process of securing support for a bid to replace Martin.

O’Callaghan, in confirming his decision to forego a junior ministry, has said he wants to concentrate on rebuilding the party, which many have seen as the opening salvo in his bid to be leader in 2022.

The other likely candidate for consideration is Michael McGrath but he has made clear that his “sole focus” for now is on his ministerial duties in public expenditure and reform.

As with Varadkar and Simon Coveney in Fine Gael before 2017, every move made by Calleary, O’Callaghan and McGrath will now be judged in the context of the leadership.

Cruel to be thinking this way just one week into Martin’s tenure, but that’s politics.

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