IVAN YATES: Martin’s most momentous choice as Fianna Fáil leader? Fine Gael

SOMETIMES sorry is insufficient. An apology has to be accepted to be complete.

Micheál Martin competently navigated his first ard fheis as party leader. Centrepiece of his presidential address was the unequivocal apology forFianna Fáil’s failures in government. This fell short of providing any specifics. He is certainly not sorry for the bank bailout. Sorry for Nama? Partnership allowed to rule the roost? Nationalising Anglo or Nationwide? Benchmarking? EU/IMF/ECB bailout? Lack of depth in contrition smacks of tokenism. The standing ovation from delegates was bizarre. The warmth of welcome for urinating on Bertie and Cowen represented a somersault on previous diehard loyalty. In reality, they were accepting an apology for the loss of 58 Dáil seats. Sorry for themselves.

Leader of the opposition has always been the dirtiest job in Irish politics. One can only talk, rather than act. Lack of executive power means weakened personal authority. Many a taoiseach has appeared ineffective leading their party on opposition benches. The office makes the man. Martin’s task is insurmountable. With only 19 TDs, he has to win 60 seats to lead his party into government as taoiseach. The extent of party collapse was so great in the last election that surely it will take two terms before they can become the largest party again. Voter volatility has to reach new heights to allow FF to pole vault back in one leap. Even if an entire new cohort of councillors are elected in 2014, it seems impossible to go from one seat in Dublin to the required 20+.

Personal prospects of Micheál Martin being taoiseach are poor. He is likely to be a rarity — an FF leader who does not become taoiseach. History is littered with leaders who initiated renewal of their party, without becoming prime minister. William Hague, Michael Howard, Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock, John Smith, Alan Dukes, Michael Noonan and others found themselves in the right job at the wrong time. They inherited leadership at a time of transition, rather than on the cusp of power. They were consigned to history as caretaker leaders. Martin has personally lost out on lucrative lump sum and pension entitlements as a former minister because he is serving TD. The goalposts are too far away to have a kickable opportunity.

Without the oxygen of power, parties become restive. Impatient politicos vent their frustrations through pursuit of personal ambition. Éamon Ó Cuív traversed the country (rubber chicken circuit through constituencies) as deputy leader. Invariably, grassroot members told him furtively what a great leader he would make. His pedigree as grandson of the party’s founder provides him with impeccable DNA. His urban Dublin upbringing and west of Ireland constituency makes him ideal. As a former cabinet minister, his CV stands scrutiny.

He made his first pitch for the top job openly last week. Previously, he cultivated distance between himself and Martin over handling of the presidential candidacy and septic tank charges. Europe now provides him with a policy principle to openly defy his leadership opponent.

Ó Cuív badly misjudged the party mood. On the eve of the first party conference in three years was the worst possible timing for disloyalty — given the low morale and consequent need for unity. FF adopted European advocacy for five decades. Flirtation with Euroscepticism at this time, smacks of a rearguard response to opinion poll threats from Sinn Féin. The rebel stance elicited no public internal support. Martin correctly swiftly dispatched Ó Cuív from his post, with the prospect of losing the party whip when he votes against the EU treaty.

No doubt, with the likely retirement of Pat “the Cope” Gallagher as MEP, he will be manoeuvred into pursuing his Euro ideals as a representative of the Connacht/Ulster constituency.

A pro-Europe position is a no-brainer for FF. To abandon past Europhile positions would be totally opportunistic, while preaching a constructive opposition strategy. FF will always be a party of government rather than protest. The establishment, both business and institutional, have a vested interest in sustaining membership of the euro zone — we’re too far in to opt out now.

The real crux for Martin and FF is to deal with their fundamental problem, namely an identity crisis. The core value and party brand has been power. Being in government, with all its contingent pragmatism and expediency, was the glue that held the broad church together. Magnetism of getting things done in the real world provided corporate donations and career opportunities for ambitious young politicians. Without office, FF lost its principal attractiveness. The central credo has evaporated.

FF has to decide whether they are fundamentally low tax/low spend or for greater government intervention. Will they be liberal or conservative on issues of same-sex adoption and legalised abortion? In conflict between public and private sectors on pay and pensions, who will they side with?

Alana McRee’s dog opted to travel a little bit of the road with everybody. It doesn’t work in fragmented opposition, because being all things to all people ends up being bland and indistinct. In government, your decisions determine your political priorities. In opposition, policy positions determine your brand. Fine Gael and Enda Kenny waltzed into power, because of the incumbent’s implosion. FF faces Sinn Féin competition for market share. They stake out polarised positions, which must flush out FF.

A CONVEYOR belt of events provide for inevitable attrition and loss of popularity for Fine Gael and Labour. Assessing downside risks ahead for the Government, it’s certain they will become greatly disliked. Public expenditure this year will be €51.7bn. Tax revenue is unlikely to exceed €35bn. Heavy lifting is awaited in reducing social welfare by several hundred million. Promises to the troika on welfare reform remain to be dealt with. Household taxation in the form of the €100 charge, site valuation tax or broadcasting levy must be enacted. A second bailout, beyond 2013, will provide creditors with opportunity to insist on more specific terms and conditions of austerity. Privatisation plans have still to move from concept to reality. Nama’s role and profitability for the two pillar banks (AIB and BOI) are subject to considerable uncertainty.

For FF to capitalise on FG/Labour odium, they will become more adversarial, destructive and populist. This political cycle never changes. If a new right of centre party (Progressive Democrats, Mark Two) appears, FF’s previous ‘catch all’ stance could catch nothing.

For Martin, the most momentous dilemma is whether to coalesce with Fine Gael after the 2016 election. The best-case scenario for FF is the combined loss of 60 seats between government parties. The likelihood is FG will seek a new partner to secure an overall majority. Will Martin play the long game, passing up a final opportunity to be minister again or will he finally bury the last vestiges of civil war politics?

These parties have the same policies and worldview. This will be the defining point of his leadership. Banishing Bertie & Co, post the Mahon Tribunal report comes next. If Martin rules out coalition with FG, he faces never being minister again.


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