As Cowen springs his surprise, Martin leaps in to save the party from wipeout


MARTIN STRATEGY:Fianna Fáil insiders say it does not help Micheál Martin’s chances of success today to be seen as half-in and half-out of the Cabinet, writes DEAGLÁN de BRÉADÚN

IN POLITICS, as in warfare, the element of surprise is always worth having and Brian Cowen pulled a rabbit out of the hat when he announced last Sunday night that he would be tabling a motion of confidence in  himself within a mere 48 hours.

Despite the short notice, Micheál Martin did not hesitate. The Taoiseach’s press conference was hardly over when his Minister for Foreign Affairs was addressing journalists at another hotel about a mile away.

Martin’s supporters insist his decision to move so fast was motivated by concern for the welfare of the party rather than personal ambition. As they see it – and the current opinion polls provide ample evidence – the party may not even be able to muster enough deputies to form a decent opposition, never mind taking part in government, if Cowen leads it into the general election.

But if the Taoiseach can spring a surprise, so can Martin and his swift action ran contrary to the regular refrain of his critics who say he is indecisive and slow to take a position on issues.

However, there are moments when a politician must bear in mind Shakespeare’s dictum that, “there is a tide in the affairs of men”, and you must either seize the moment or spend a lifetime regretting that you didn’t.

Although there is a general expectation at time of writing that the Taoiseach will win this evening’s vote, Martin’s supporters will be hoping that he has a firm hold on the high moral ground if, as many are predicting, Cowen steps down in two or three months after the general election.

The waters have been muddied by Martin’s agreement at the request of the Taoiseach to put his resignation from Government on hold until after this evening’s meeting in Leinster House.

There was some evidence yesterday that this had damaged his cause, if only to a limited extent. Clarity and certainty are distinct advantages in a contest like this and Fianna Fáil insiders say it does not help Martin to be seen as half-in and half-out of the Cabinet.

Up to now, it was generally believed that Martin was protecting Cowen from a challenge by Brian Lenihan so that he could make his own move for the position when, as anticipated, it became vacant after polling day.

But in a turn-up for the books, Lenihan is the one who has appeared to be shielding the Taoiseach by his refusal, at time of writing, to declare for or against Brian Cowen, although the Minister for Finance promised to clarify his position before tonight’s meeting.

In the unexpected eventuality that Lenihan declared against the Taoiseach, that could prove to be a “game changer”.

“I think the Taoiseach will win and win well and it might rebound to Lenihan’s advantage,” said a Dublin deputy who nevertheless refused to declare for any of the contenders. “But we all know Lenihan thinks the same about Cowen as Martin does.”

The stark prospects facing Fianna Fáil candidates were spelled out by one of Martin’s backbench supporters: “You need to be on 16.5 per cent to elect a TD in a five-seater, 20 per cent in a four-seater and 27 per cent in a three-seater, but we’re on 14 per cent in the latest poll.”

The 85-year relationship with the voters that began when Fianna Fáil was founded in 1926 has been blown on to the rocks by the harsh winds of economic recession and a public perception that the Soldiers of Destiny themselves contributed to the current disaster.

Cowen’s critics say his uneven performance as a communicator made things even worse and that Fianna Fáil now needs a leader who can give the voters a level of confidence and reassurance, thereby saving the party from electoral wipeout.

Martin claims he can provide that leadership although there are some who take a rather jaundiced view and insist he is motivated in part by a desire to save his own seat in Cork South Central where his eager party colleague, Michael McGrath, has built a formidable base. Fianna Fáil holds two out of five in the constituency at present, but it looks like the party will only have one deputy after the election.

At a time when one would have thought the Minister would be ringing his colleagues in the parliamentary party, Micheál Martin gave a staggering number of radio and television interviews yesterday although, as one uncommitted TD observed: “Not many of our deputies listen to the Ryan Tubridy show on 2FM.”