Mutterings about Micheál Martin as Fianna Fáil leader

Analysis: Yes vote in abortion referendum would provide him with a significant boost

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin: Given his experience and work rate, he remains the best leader available to the party. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin: Given his experience and work rate, he remains the best leader available to the party. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 

Micheál Martin’s leadership is the elephant in the Fianna Fáil room.

That is not to say it is under immediate threat, nor that there is anybody else who currently could do a better job.

In fact, Martin, given his experience and work rate, remains the best leader available.

Nevertheless, as the party trails Fine Gael in the polls, and remains wedded to a “confidence and supply” arrangement with the minority Government, his parliamentary colleagues are wondering what the future holds for Fianna Fáil.

There are private mutterings of discontent. Some TDs feel he relies too heavily on key advisers Deirdre Gillane and Pat McPartland, while excluding his colleagues.

But this is not a view universally held.

“I have no great problem with a leader relying on advisers if that leader is delivering,” said a TD. “My problem is are we sure where we are going and who is going with us.”

The “who is going with us” refers to the numbers game that will determine the formation of a government after the next election.

Both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will be seeking to secure the extra numbers to form a coalition.

A Rainbow arrangement, including the small parties such as Labour, Social Democrats and the Green Party, as well as Independents, might provide the numbers for either party, depending on the post-election scenario.

Martin has ruled out Sinn Féin as post-election government partners. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has done the same.

Yet Martin’s strong dismissal of a coalition arrangement with Sinn Féin is privately rejected by some of his colleagues.

“Of course, we would do a deal with Sinn Féin, all things being equal,” said a Fianna Fáil TD. “If Micheál did not like it, he could step down as leader.”

Martin’s post-election dilemma could be acute, if Fianna Fáil-Sinn Féin emerges as a possibility. Does he do a U-turn and become taoiseach, or forfeit the leadership?

But all that, if it happens, is down the road.

Immediate problem

The immediate problem for Martin and his party is when to pull the plug on the deal keeping the minority Government in power.

Fianna Fáil committed itself to supporting three budgets, the last of which is due in October. Party sources say it is likely to fulfil that mandate and, then, all bets will be off.

That could mean a general election in the spring of next year.

A complicating factor is that local and European elections are due in the summer of next year, demanding much time and effort from the parties.

Meanwhile, there is inevitably speculation on who might take over if the Martin era came to an end for whatever reason.

Michael McGrath and Micheál Martin: the consensus is that a leadership race would likely be between McGrath and justice spokesman Jim O’Callaghan. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Michael McGrath and Micheál Martin: the consensus is that a leadership race would likely be between McGrath and justice spokesman Jim O’Callaghan. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Right now, the consensus is that the leadership would likely be between Martin’s Cork South Central constituency colleague and finance spokesman, Michael McGrath, and justice spokesman Jim O’Callaghan, a TD for Dublin Bay South.

O’Callaghan would have the advantage of coming from Dublin, where the party is weak.

Others, no doubt, would be tempted to consider their chances. Deputy leader Dara Calleary is a highly respected figure in the party, while TDs Niall Collins, Timmy Dooley, Billy Kelleher, Barry Cowen and Darragh O’Brien are not without ambition.

Mayo TD Lisa Chambers, appointed by Martin as Brexit spokeswoman, is regarded as somebody to watch in the long term.

Martin’s leadership could receive a major boost later this month if, as the polls suggest, the abortion referendum is carried. He has strongly advocated a Yes vote, while more than half of his parliamentary party is on the No side.

A Yes vote would see the party leader more in tune with the public mood. On the other hand, a No vote would be a setback.

First elected to the Dáil in 1989, he has been around since the Haughey era.

He knows no leader can rest on their laurels and that some people within his parliamentary party are concerned about the future.