SHAUN CONNOLLY: How Fianna Fáil have been totally eclipsed by events

Fianna Fail's beleaguered leader Micheal Martin, with Michael McGrath, who may replace him. Picture: Collins

Under Micheal Martin’s leadership, they have been sidelined. They didn’t nominate a presidential candidate, have no female TDs, and their only MEP, Brian Crowley, left after his re-election. Shaun Connolly asks, has the sun set on the party?

THEY were the soldiers of destiny. Now, according to their own chief whip, Fianna Fáil are the demoralised soldiers of depression.

That’s not the best slogan for a general election — ‘Vote FF: We’re A Mess’ — but Sean Ó Fearghaíl deserves credit for telling it like it is.

The chief whip described the situation as “bloody demoralising”, after a spate of opinion polls showed the party flat-lining on 17% — exactly where it was four years ago, when it received the biggest kicking in Irish political history.

But the party may have left it too late to deal with the leadership issue.

While there was real talk before Christmas that a seventh consecutive byelection defeat, in Carlow-Killkenny, would trigger a move to topple Micheal Martin, would-be plotters have lost their nerve as a full Dáil poll nears and timelines tighten.

Mr Martin has said no TD has told him that his job will be on the line if he is a seven-time-loser in May’s Carlow-Kilkenny showdown, but then heaves do not come with a written warning.

The biggest protection Mr Martin may have is that Dara Calleary, Niall Collins and Michael McGrath, the likely contenders for the top job, will conclude that it is best to keep him in place — as a lost leader turns into a loss leader until after the general election shake-down, when he takes the hit for any poor showing.

But things are probably not quite as bleak for the party as they appear: while Sinn Féin over-performs in opinion polls, Fianna Fáil fails to register its full strength.

The Sinn Féin situation is that many of the people it attracts will just not turn out to vote on the day, due to demographics and general disillusionment.

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With Fianna Fáil, there is obviously still shame among some voters in admitting in public they will back the party in private.

All this means that Sinn Féin can expect to be inflated in polls by up to five points, while last May Fianna Fáil outpaced projections by grabbing 25% in local elections, to just edge ahead as top political dog in a crowded field.

Given that the party’s vote strategy will be much tighter next time out, following the chaotic over-production of candidates and egos at the last election, their seat tally should get a boost from better management.

But Dublin remains the party’s big problem, as that’s where it struggles to register double figures in the polls and even lags behind Labour, in a battle ground that boasts a third of all Dáil seats.

While some in the marriage-equality ‘yes’ campaign may take solace that Fianna Fáil remains a defiantly same-sex party in Dáil terms, its total lack of female TDs, and failure to attract the number of female candidates needed to meet the quota requirements of the next general election, is not a good look for any organisation that claims to reflect the Republic as a whole.

This, coupled with a slew of own goals during his lacklustre four-year leadership, has left Mr Martin vulnerable.

Failure to field a presidential candidate was an early mistake, which made it look as if the party was no longer open for political business.

Poor candidate selection in the Euro elections saw only-incumbent Brian Crowley returned, and he soon left the party fold after an avoidable row.

With so few troops, indiscipline has been a constant struggle for Mr Martin — as exemplified by his failure to impose his will regarding the X-Case legislation, when TDs told him they were voting whichever way they wanted and if he did not like it that was tough.

And yet, the party could still end up back in Government after the next election, because no matter what they say now, the scramble for power will be as manic as it will be ugly after the polls close.

Fianna Fáil need the decontamination chamber of Government Buildings to prove they have changed from the sorry mess that surrendered economic sovereignty to foreigners and that they can be trusted once more.

Fine Gael and Labour could well need Fianna Fáil to get into a second term — but the once-dominant Fianna Fáil will be in danger of just making up the numbers.

That is because FF has allowed itself to be pushed to the sidelines, portrayed as bit players in a shifting political landscape in which only Fine Gael or Sinn Féin can aspire to lead a coalition.

And considering that Fianna Fáil, after four years, has still not even put forward a comprehensive policy platform on something as essential to national life as the health service, how do they expect to be taken seriously?

Launching a 1916 programme, in an attempt to tussle the tricolour away from Sinn Féin and once again wrap Fianna Fáil in the flag, Mr Martin issued a public rebuke to Mr Ó Fearghaíl: he said Mr Ó Fearghaíl was wrong, and that his own leadership had not made people depressed and demoralised.

But it seems the chief whip has the whip hand on what is really going on in the trenches, while Mr Martin acts like the Sun King — oblivious to the reality that threatens him.

In a nice turn of phrase, given the solar events, one reporter asked Mr Martin if Fianna Fáil’s sunshine had not been eclipsed by the Sinn Féin moon.

Mr Martin dismissed the claim, but the reality is that under his leadership, in terms of policy and political presence, Fianna Fáil has not only been eclipsed, it is in danger of becoming an irrelevance.

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