Martin needs to take strong stand on Ó Cuív now


INSIDE POLITICS:The ongoing rebellion by his former deputy is presenting Micheál Martin with a great leadership opportunity, writes STEPHEN COLLINS

FIANNA FÁIL leader Micheál Martin is now facing a challenge that is likely to prove decisive in determining whether his party has a viable future or whether it is on the way to joining its old coalition partner, the Progressive Democrats, in the dust bin of history.

The continued rebellion of his former deputy leader and Galway West TD Éamon Ó Cuív has presented Martin with a serious problem but it also represents a great opportunity to stamp his authority on the party and redefine its image.

Martin has had a good week. He was easily the most impressive of the four leading politicians taking part in the TV3 debate on the fiscal treaty on Tuesday night and he gave a commanding performance on Pat Kenny’s radio programme a day earlier.

Europe is an issue Martin is passionate about and, as a former minister for foreign affairs, he speaks with authority on the subject. He is an unequivocal supporter of a Yes vote in the referendum on May 31st, not because he regards the treaty as the solution to the euro zone’s problem, but because a No would be so disastrous for the country.

He has not succumbed to temptation to play a double game in the hope of embarrassing the Coalition. Despite his own criticism of the inadequacies of the treaty, he has faced up to the reality of the choice facing the Irish electorate and come out strongly in favour of a Yes vote.

Martin’s views on Europe are consistent with the attitude of Fianna Fáil since Seán Lemass decided more than half a century ago that Ireland should apply for membership of the EEC. The positive impact of EU membership on the country at every level from dramatically improved living standards to the creation of a more fair and tolerant society is obvious to most people.

Nonetheless a strident minority has resisted the EU at every stage of its development. Sinn Féin, a variety of small left-wing groups and a hardcore right-wing minority have seen Europe as a threat rather than an opportunity and at times have been able to win short-term approval from the electorate in referendums.

Ó Cuív now wants to drag Fianna Fáil back to its pre-1960s position as an isolationist party out of the European mainstream and he has followed the logic of his position by suggesting that Sinn Féin would be the most appropriate coalition partner in the future.

He followed this up by accusing Martin of being “very Europhile” and having a blinkered view of Europe. The former deputy leader claims that many grassroots members of Fianna Fáil share his views and he has in effect thrown down the gauntlet to Martin.

While Martin will be urged by many of his colleagues to shirk a confrontation on the basis that he shouldn’t make a martyr of Ó Cuív, he would be foolish to take the soft short-term option. At this stage it is either him or his challenger. More importantly it is about whether Fianna Fáil is going to start on the hard road back to power or follow the easy road, which will inevitably lead to oblivion.

With a diminished parliamentary party of just 19 TDs, expelling a TD from the parliamentary party is not an attractive option, particularly when the TD in question is Éamon de Valera’s grandson and a person who is respected as an honest and sincere individual. Nonetheless, taking a strong stand would be the best option for Martin. While he might lose a west of Ireland TD for good the signal such a move would send out could reap a harvest in Dublin where the party now does not have a single TD.

Even if Ó Cuív’s attitude to the fiscal treaty is shared by some grassroots Fianna Fáil members, his suggestion that Sinn Féin offered the best coalition option appalled not only his colleagues in Leinster House but many ordinary party members.

“The only kind of coalition Sinn Féin want with us is to eat us up and spit us out. It would be suicide to have anything to do with them,” said one Fianna Fáil TD. He pointed to the fate of the SDLP in Northern Ireland and predicted that Fianna Fáil would suffer an even worse fate if it went down the road of allying itself with Sinn Féin.

There is little doubt that Sinn Féin is on the rise and the referendum campaign has given the party a great opportunity for publicity given the broadcasting rules that require both sides get 50 per cent of airtime.

However, while the approach it has taken has confirmed Sinn Féin’s role as the leading party of protest in the Republic, that does not mean it is going to become a party of power any time soon. There is still huge resistance to Sinn Féin in middle Ireland and that is where Fianna Fáil’s hope of recovery lies.

It will take the party a long time to live down the economic disaster that befell the country under its leadership but by putting the national interest first on the fiscal treaty Martin has demonstrated that Fianna Fáil still has a role to play as a serious political organisation.

In the longer term, aiming at returning to power in a coalition with Fine Gael or even Labour is a far more feasible option than joining an opposition bloc with Sinn Féin and a variety of left-wing forces.

The Coalition looks very solid now but even if it lasts the full term the two Government parties will be competing with each other at the next election and there is no knowing what the political configuration will be after that.

Martin’s best option is to make Fianna Fáil relevant to the formation of the next government. Dealing effectively with the challenge of Ó Cuív would mark another step in the right direction.

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