Ó Cuív crisis proves a real opportunity for Martin
OPINION:THE ROW that led to the sacking of Éamon Ó Cuív as the deputy leader of Fianna Fáil was the best thing that could have happened to Micheál Martin as he faces into his first ardfheis as leader. It has forced him to stamp his authority on the party and to give a clear direction about where Fianna Fáil stand on the most critical issue facing the country at the moment.
Martin’s biggest liability as leader is the perception, both inside and outside the party, that he is indecisive. That is why the challenge to his authority on the issue of Europe by Ó Cuív was so important. If he had shirked the conflict his leadership was doomed, and in all likelihood so was Fianna Fáil.
In the event Martin’s response was quick and decisive. He then received the backing of his entire parliamentary party for the decision to force the issue to a head, with Ó Cuív standing down as deputy leader and as party spokesman on communications.
It was the ideal battle, from the leader’s perspective. The challenge to his authority came from someone senior enough to make it serious but in a form that left the party’s TDs and Senators with no option but to back their leader to the hilt if they valued their own chances of long-term survival.
Ó Cuív is not without his supporters in the party, particularly in the rural heartland. Not only does he represent the traditional Fianna Fáil values of his grandfather, he has always espoused and adhered to the highest standards of integrity, in marked contrast to some of his senior party colleagues who became enmeshed in embarrassing scandals.
Nonetheless, his outbreak of Euro-scepticism represented not only a challenge to his leader’s authority but a step back to a Fianna Fáil of a different era. Since Seán Lemass lodged Ireland’s first application to join the European Economic Community (EEC) back in 1962, Fianna Fáil has been a pro-European party.
It was the Fianna Fáil government of Jack Lynch that led the way in persuading the Irish people to vote overwhelmingly in favour of joining the EEC in 1972 and the country’s first European commissioner was Patrick Hillery, who was later to become president.
Since then every commissioner, with the exception of Dick Burke, has been a Fianna Fáil politician but, more to the point, the party has adopted a strongly pro-European stance in every referendum.
The party always contained an undercurrent of those who worried that de Valera’s concept of Irish sovereignty was being violated by our involvement in Europe. Ó Cuív as a young man campaigned against entry to the EEC in 1972 but, more significantly, he announced while a minister of state in 2001 that he had voted No to the Nice treaty, despite his own government’s commitment to a Yes vote.
It was essential for Martin to keep Fianna Fáil on the pro-Europe side. The party’s best hope of survival is to position itself as a modern, forward-looking organisation that can be trusted with government again at some time in the future after it has renewed itself.
Of course there is a short-term attraction in adopting a policy of obstruction and seeing how the Fine Gael-Labour Coalition would cope with the consequences of a No vote.
However, adopting an anti-treaty stance would have destroyed whatever credibility Fianna Fáil has left.
It has also put clear distance between itself and Sinn Féin, with whom it is competing for leadership of the Opposition. In the short term Sinn Féin will be able to generate huge publicity from its involvement in the No campaign but the net effect will simply be to confirm its image as a party of protest.
By contrast Fianna Fáil has positioned itself as a responsible party of power, concerned ultimately with the national interest.
The Government’s decision to opt for a referendum on the European stability treaty has also vindicated Martin’s insistence that the people had to be consulted. As minister for foreign affairs he proved highly effective in the second Lisbon referendum and will have the opportunity to shine again, despite limited media opportunities, this time around.
Some in Fianna Fáil have been worried about the louder noise emanating from Sinn Féin on the Opposition side of the Dáil, and some opinion polls appear to have confirmed their fears. Politics, though, is a long game, and the last thing Fianna Fáil needs is to be sucked into a game of who can shout loudest from the Opposition benches.
Whatever about the opinion polls, the presidential election last October showed Sinn Féin with its strongest candidate in the field winning a solid but hardly awe-inspiring 13.7 per cent of the vote. By contrast, the surrogate Fianna Fáil candidate Seán Gallagher won 28.5 per cent and would have done a lot better if he not been panicked by the bogus tweet broadcast by the Frontline programme.
Gallagher turned himself into a real contender by espousing a positive message and steering clear of the cat-calling that bedevils day-to-day politics. There are obvious lessons for Fianna Fáil, and the party should not be panicked even if it is eclipsed for a time in the Dáil.
The fundamental challenge facing Fianna Fáil is to re-establish a basis of trust with the electorate, and this will take a long time.
Another problem is organisation. The famed Fianna Fáil machine withered away during the Ahern years as individual TDs built their own organisations. With most of its TDs gone, there are few party loyalists left to go out and campaign in elections.
The nature and size of the crowd attending the ardfheis will provide some clues as to whether a recovery is possible. The task facing Martin is immense, but the past few days have given him a chance to take a few steps in the right direction.