His party’s best hope
Speculation about an early “heave” against Micheál Martin’s leadership of Fianna Fáil appears to be just loose talk. Some politicians believe their abilities have been ignored; others carry old grudges, are suspicious of a drift towards liberalism and hanker after old, conservative ways. Complaints of decision-making by a small cabal are frequent and Mr Martin’s years in government are regarded as a major defect. A combination of these forces, bringing together young blood and the old guard, may eventually bring him down. But his undisputed success in rebuilding a shattered party will prevent any challenge in advance of the local and European elections of 2014.
In spite of sniping at Leinster House, party members have shown their appreciation of the work he has done. Starting with a voting base of 17 per cent in the general election of 2011, he has managed to lift support into the mid-twenties through hard graft in the constituencies; an ethical agenda and a solid Dáil performance. Almost 70 per cent of Fianna Fáil supporters are satisfied with what he has achieved in refurbishing the party image. That has involved the forced resignations of Bertie Ahern and Pádraig Flynn following publication of the Mahon tribunal report; the adoption of new ethical guidelines and a proposal that ordinary members be involved in selecting the next party leader. He has also performed well on Northern Ireland, criticising both the Government and Sinn Féin for dangerous complacency in their support for the peace process.
There has also been indecision and public humiliation. His efforts to get ageing senators to step aside in favour of youth and ability were rebuffed. His handling of the presidential election campaign was a disaster. But he saw off an early challenge to his leadership from Éamon Ó Cuív. More recently, he was unable to prevent the defection of two-thirds of his parliamentary party on abortion legislation that he felt was proportionate and necessary. And if the Government holds a referendum on same-sex marriage next year, that pattern of internal dissent may re-emerge.
Mr Martin’s critics represented a drop in party support, following publication of Anglo Irish Bank tape recordings, as convincing evidence that he would be a serious liability in a general election campaign. It was a cheap shot. The public may have reacted negatively to Fianna Fáil’s past record, rather than its present leader. Disparate forces within the parliamentary party are unhappy with both the style and the content of his leadership. Their potential champions are, however, unwilling to display unseemly ambition. Work remains to be done. Dublin is a virtual desert for the party and Independent candidates a potent force. As things stand, Mr Martin represents the party’s best hope for recovery.