If deputy Micheál Martin had harboured hopes that Fianna Fáil’s first ard fheis under his leadership would be a headline-grabbing event, the sudden resignation of Éamon Ó Cuív, his deputy leader, makes that a certainty.
In a remarkable twist in the history of the Soldiers of Destiny, Mr Ó Cuív, the grandson of former President Éamon de Valera, a founding father of Fianna Fáil, will be left out in the cold in the Dáil following the referendum on the European Stability Treaty. His expulsion from the parliamentary party now seems inevitable.
Reportedly, he has denied rumours of joining Sinn Féin. Having little option but to resign as deputy leader and communications spokesman, he will remain a TD at the grassroots of the organisation, a Trojan horse in waiting.
The implications for Micheál Martin are immense. By forcing Mr Ó Cuív to step down, his position has been strengthened. The deputy’s position was clearly untenable and had Mr Martin balked in the face of so blatant a challenge to his leadership it would have spelled disaster for him.
The weekend muster of the much-diminished party resembles a battleground for the heart and soul of Fianna Fáil. The characteristically cautious leader can now square his shoulders and look forward to it.
As leader, his dilemma is that Mr Ó Cuív has the ear of rural TDs and is bound to influence thinking on the thorny question of how to vote in the referendum. Significantly, he is also a leader in the campaign against the septic tank charge.
With Fianna Fáil committed to backing the Government’s call for a ‘Yes’ vote, a stance firmly reiterated by Mr Martin yesterday, the open threat of a personal ‘No’ vote by Mr Ó Cuív was a time bomb in waiting.
Just how untenable Mr Ó Cuív’s position on the referendum had become was heard on Raidió na Gaeltachta yesterday. He said he had to decide over the next while whether he could go with the party stance, if that were in favour of the referendum, or whether the question was so grave that he would have to go against the party, and that the implications of that decision would mean leaving the parliamentary party.
Effectively, he had thrown down a gauntlet in response to Mr Martin’s statement that ratification of the treaty had been fully discussed and that the issue had been democratically decided in accordance with a party tradition going back 50 years.
Politically, the challenge to Mr Martin’s leadership could not have been more serious. Just days before the most important party meeting in years, the fact his position on the referendum was not endorsed by his deputy leader had fuelled rumours of a rift. It also heightened speculation on a growing rural-urban divide at a time of waning party fortunes and when it needs to make progress in city constituencies where Sinn Féin is gaining ground.
With Fianna Fáil struggling to find its political compass, the outcome of this ard fheis will have a profound bearing on Mr Martin’s political future. Had he failed to confront Mr Ó Cuív head-on, it would have signalled the end of his leadership. By taking action he has shown decisiveness and mettle.
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