GERARD HOWLIN: Averil Power’s criticism rings true, but will Fianna Fáil listen?

Micheál Martin’s party lacks the numbers and, with only a few exceptions, lacks the passion to impact in Leinster House and the vision to reinvent itself, writes Gerard Howlin

MICHEÁL Martin has now surpassed Enda Kenny as the most scorned, ill-fated leader of the opposition in the modern era. The resignation from Fianna Fáil yesterday of Senator Averil Power, trailing withering criticism in her wake, is unquestionably a blow. The timing was also hurtful.

Bobby Aylward TD will arrive in Leinster House today, having been newly elected in Carlow-Kilkenny last Friday, and it should be an unquestioned sign of the party’s reviving fortunes. Instead, Power’s resignation will rain on Martin’s parade, the first one he was set to really enjoy since the relatively good results of the last local elections.

Focus on the personalities of either Power or Martin misses the fundamental point. Fianna Fáil is in one sense doing significantly better that it is generally given credit for. In another, and here Power’s searing criticism rings true, for all its policy papers, it has conspicuously failed to author any meaningful vision for Ireland in the 21st century.

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It has more talent locally than it has nationally. It has intact a local base, and since the local elections the elected representatives to work that base, which is under appreciated in the national media.

The fact the party lost so badly in the last general election was partly because it ran a superstructure of candidates intended to maximise seats on the basis of receiving 40% of the vote.

Instead, reduced to 17% of the vote, far too many candidates exacerbated the loss of seats. Its 17% of the vote in 2011 only garnered 12% of available seats, where 29 instead of 20 TDs would have been a pro rata return.

Those bare facts have resulted in the most feeble main opposition parliamentary party ever.

Martin’s party lacks the numbers and, with only a few exceptions, it lacks the passion or the capacity to impact in Leinster House. This for them is not any ordinary, periodic spell in opposition.

It is about rebuilding a once fabled political machine that in truth had been rusting for decades. It is about reputational recovery in the aftermath of the most traumatic economic collapse in the history of the State.

And perhaps most profoundly it is about reimaging the Republic for a modern era, if it is to be really relevant again. If there is some, but not enough competence in Fianna Fáil, there is certainly not enough vision.

Its parliamentary party is unquestionably the weakest part of its structure, and the biggest drag on credibility and performance. Often highly entertaining people individually, collectively its parliamentarians are culturally far behind history, in terms of where the country has moved on to.

That was exposed in Power’s own telling yesterday. Martin’s own leadership on the issue of equal marriage aside, it was evidenced by facts on the ground. Senator Jim Walsh and John McGuinness nailed their colours to the mast, and said they were voting no.

Some like Billy Kelleher, Niall Collins, and Dara Calleary spoke up publicly for a yes vote, but overall, the effort was pallid. This was a party of generally older, male cute hoors waiting to see what way the wind would blow. It wasn’t inspiring, and for Power it was the final straw.

Martin yesterday was quick to accuse his former prize pupil of leaving out of frustrated ambition.

She is certainly an ambitious woman, with a formidable work rate. The nub of this is that a party membership in Dublin Bay North which doesn’t overwhelmingly share her forward-thinking views, and hasn’t embraced a very forward woman, will opt to support the former TD and junior minister Seán Haughey instead.

In a scenario where even if she were to be added onto the ticket with Haughey, there is still only one out of five seats for Fianna Fáil in a constituency where it currently holds none. And Power has no intention of being the bridesmaid at that celebration.

It is certainly true that Haughey is back in the race, and at the very least was going to give her a very good run for her money.

This brings us back to personality, and the leadership required to manage disparate, ambitious people. Simply by holding on, Martin is able to reassemble his party’s once-shattered base. It is in my view almost inconceivable he will have fewer than 30 seats after the next election.

If he can move the dial on the day that number could conceivably be closer to 40. But moving the dial, means regaining support in Dublin and urban Ireland and that requires not only candidates, it will need a message that is carried convincingly.

That is why Power matters. She was never flavour of the month among her colleagues. But more than most of them, she could cut through the smog and smell of old Fianna Fáil.

For Martin this is another loss of key personnel following on others. As leader his greatest achievement is that he has survived, and he will survive Power’s departure too. He has repeatedly, however, demonstrated a lack of the intuitive, tactile nous to successfully manage competing agendas and ambitions.

All that being said, Power’s future is now outside Fianna Fáil, so he has one less critic to deal with internally.

Like Kenny almost universally scorned once, Martin’s gambit is based on staying in place until the tide turns, and then taking the opportunities that events present. Kenny survived long enough to triumph. Alan Dukes and Michael Noonan, Ruairi Quinn, and Pat Rabbitte were all opposition leaders, for whom time ran out. As with all political contests, the real race is often against the clock.

Gerard Howlin is a former adviser to Fianna Fáil

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