Anti-Martin faction intends to speak up at FF think-in as loyalists prepare a defence

‘There’s a group that want him gone in the morning. There’s a group very loyal to him. And then there’s a group in the middle’

Taoiseach Micheál Martin: sources say he is prepared to come out fighting. Photograph: Getty Images

Taoiseach Micheál Martin: sources say he is prepared to come out fighting. Photograph: Getty Images

 

The rumbling internal dispute between the Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin and some of his TDs is likely to erupt into the open at Thursday’s party think-in in Co Cavan.

Those critical of Martin’s leadership are likely to make their feelings clear at the afternoon sessions, which will see TDs and Senators discuss a long-awaited report on the party’s performance at the last general election.

Both sides have been marshalling their forces in recent days. The anti-Martin faction, in which prominent backbenchers Barry Cowen and Jim O’Callaghan are said to be leading figures along with long-time critics such as John McGuinness and Marc MacSharry, have been encouraging colleagues to have their say, according to several sources on both sides of the divide.

They have circulated a list of supporters and potential supporters, amounting to almost half the party’s TDs, though it is understood that some of the names on the list are deeply unhappy about their inclusion. There has been talk of a no-confidence motion in the party leader, and also talk of a no-confidence meeting, without the motion.

Martin loyalists have been preparing their defence, and sources say the party leader is prepared to come out fighting. While previously Martin has been reluctant to engage in public combat with his TDs, his testy response last week when asked about parallels between the treatment of Barry Cowen – sacked from Cabinet last year – and Simon Coveney indicate this approach may be at an end. “He’s done too much Mr Nice Guy,” says one loyalist.

Divisions

Initially divisions are likely to be apparent when the parliamentary party discusses a report on the general election performance and the current state of the party.

Compiled independently of the leadership by a committee of politicians, officials and grassroots representatives, its findings have been a closely-guarded secret for months, though they were due to be circulated to TDs and Senators on Wednesday evening.

They will find that some of the responsibility for the poor result last year should be accepted by the party leadership – but not all.

It will say the party talked too much about Sinn Féin during the campaign – a charge some TDs lay at Martin’s door – but it will also find that poor party discipline has caused damage.

It will also point to the stance taken by many of the party’s TDs and Senators in opposition to the repeal of the Eighth Amendment on abortion, and conclude it alienated many young people from the party.

But the divisions within the party are built on more than just the analysis of the election and how the blame should be allocated. To be fair, there’s probably enough blame to go around for everyone.

There is always a personal edge to politics – especially in Fianna Fáil politics.

Martin loyalists regard the dissidents as motivated by personal antipathy to Martin, in many cases because of their own frustrated ambition; they say they are utterly reckless to the damage the campaign against Martin causes the party amongst the wider public.

They ask how the public would react to a relatively well-regarded and popular (by the standards of these things) Taoiseach being knifed by his own TDs for... what, exactly?

Traitor

But those opposed to Martin resent the way that every TD who speaks out is branded a traitor to Fianna Fáil and a threat to the party’s future.

“We’re told to shut up, they’re managing the country, and we should do as we’re told,” says one of their number. “They treat us as delinquents and trouble-makers.”

“I’ll be speaking up,” says one of the anti-Martin list. “And I’d say everyone else will too. Everyone is concerned by what’s happening to the party.”

Others profess an unwillingness to move against Martin now, but believe the party needs change and renewal.

It may be that the expected revolt – or mini-revolt, as one of the likely participants describes it – is intended not to topple Martin but to give him a signal that he does not have the support to stay as party leader beyond his period as Taoiseach, which under the coalition agreement ends in December 2022.

Martin has previously said that he intends to lead the party into the next election, but even few of his loyalists believe that. He may have to acknowledge it at some stage.

And parallel to the leadership question, raging as a subterranean undercurrent in every discussion about the party’s future, is the gnawing worry throughout the party that the space for Fianna Fáil on the Irish political landscape is constantly shrinking.

“There’s a group that want him gone in the morning. There’s a group that are very loyal to him. And then there’s a group in the middle,” says one member of the parliamentary party, who identifies as part of the third group. “The big issue for us is the future of the party and its identity.”