MICHAEL CLIFFORD: Martin leadership safe within the gaping power vacuum

While constituency politics was a factor in Power’s exit from FF, her complaints were not without substance, writes Michael Clifford

THIS should be a time of living dangerously for Micheál Martin. The party’s great bright hope in Dublin has just walked out the door, delivering a few parting shots at his leadership. Averil Power had her own constituency travails, but her complaints about the direction of the party under Martin were not without substance.

Martin, she said, had become “a leader without followers”.

“His front bench are all pulling in different directions and prioritising their personal political success over the needs of the party and the country,” she said.

The inference was obvious. Martin was either unwilling or incapable of imposing discipline on his parliamentary party at a time when Fianna Fáil is thrashing around for direction and vision.

Her departure signals a trend in young, able and ambitious representatives and activists jumping ship. In Dublin, councillor David McGuinness left after failing to win a nomination for the general election. He described the party as “redundant”. In Kilkenny, Patrick McKee switched horses to Renua, ahead of the byelection won last Friday by Bobby Alyward. And now the biggest blow of all. Power represented the prototype candidate that the party wants to put forward in its phase of renewal; young, bright, female, and crucially, a Dubliner. Poor old Martin. Et tu, Averil?

Then, yesterday, another resignation. Cork-based activist Ken Curtin said the party’s failure to canvass in the same-sex marriage referendum was “the last straw” for him.

Many of the departures involved politicians with what might be described as “constituency issues” but their instinct to jump ship also points to a lack of confidence in where the party is headed. To suggest that ambition played no part in Power’s departure would be naïve, but her discomfort with the wider problems was obvious.

Her observation about personal agendas certainly rings true. John McGuinness never lets up throwing brickbats at his leader. McGuinness’s public declaration that he was voting against party policy in the same-sex marriage was just the latest example. There is little doubt but that a number of Fine Gael TDs were also no voters, but they knew better than to publicly diss their leader.

Eamon Ó Cuív is another who has the cut of a man hedging bets, rather than getting four square behind a leader trying to haul the party out of perdition. And all of this is against a backdrop of a party thrashing around for a new identity. Ordinarily, Martin’s goose would be just about cooked.

Except these aren’t ordinary times. There is no queue of leaders-in-waiting. While Martin might not inspire the element of fear that all leaders hold in reserve, McGuinness would probably inspire loathing in some quarters of the party. Fianna Fáil led by Ó Cuív would have very little purchase with the electorate in the cities, despite being a product of Dublin 4 himself.

The young guns of Michael McGrath, Niall Collins, or Dara Calleary don’t have Martin’s baggage from the Bertie days, but neither do they appear to possess some outstanding leadership qualities that could open up new prairies for the party.

Willie O’Dea put it best on RTÉ radio last year, on one of the many occasions that Martin’s leadership was up for discussion.

“I say this with the greatest respect to my colleagues — I respect each and every one of them — I look around the [front bench] table, in my mind’s eye, and I don’t see the Messiah and when I look in the mirror I don’t see him either,” O’Dea said.

Fianna Fáil could certainly do with a Messiah right now. Aylward’s election was a boost, but it masks a deeper malaise. He represents old Fianna Fáil, but what is new Fianna Fáil — this party that has emerged from the wreckage of near annihilation?

Is it the party of old, a catch-all entity with a few bells and whistles added, and the odd builder taken away?

Would such a party have any future in an increasingly urbanised electorate which votes not out of loyalty but on actual politics?

On the socio-economic spectrum, is it left, right or down the centre, and how exactly does it differ from Fine Gael?

One might well surmise that Fianna Fáil is now Fine Gael-lite, where once the roles were reversed with Fine Gael hanging onto Fianna Fáil’s coat tails.

No answers are as yet forthcoming. In all likelihood, there will be no real answers this side of a general election, which is as good a reason as any for the party to persist with Martin.

He is a better performer, in both the Dáil and on the media, than any other party leaders. He has bundles of energy and is a vigorous campaigner.

During the last general election, the writer John Waters likened Martin’s patient and empathic manner on the campaign to that of a priest — no bad thing when out hunting for votes.

The only real alternative to Martin at the moment is one of the young guns occupying the front bench, but should one ascend to the top job, he would find himself faced with identical problems, and less than six months to sort things out.

For those reasons, Micheál Martin’s leadership is as safe as houses. Irrespective of all the turbulence, there is nobody in line with the power or gumption to deliver a knife between his shoulder blades. Nor is there anybody who could make things better. The job that was once the most coveted in Irish politics no longer focuses ambition.

READ NEXT: Averil Power: Party’s reaction confirms that I made right decision

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