Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said that he is not concerned about his position following the disappointing performance of Fianna Fáil in the byelection.
It comes as Fianna Fáil TD Jim O'Callaghan has declined to say categorically that Mr Martin will lead the party into the next general election, saying it very much depends on when the election is held.
Mr O'Callaghan was the director of elections for Fianna Fáil in Dublin Bay South where its candidate Deirdre Conroy received less than 5 per cent of the vote, a historically low figure for the party in any electoral contest.
Asked about the need for a change of leadership, Mr O’Callaghan said “no” but when asked if Mr Martin should lead the party into the next election, he said it depended on when it was held.
When asked if that was 2024 or 2025, he replied: “We will have to think about that.”
He added: “Any leader who indicates a date of departure necessarily weakens themselves. I fully understand when the Taoiseach says he is going to lead Fianna Fáil into the next general election.”
Mr O'Callaghan said the result was "extremely disappointing" but praised Ms Conroy for her efforts. He said part of the reason was that the contest became a two-horse race and many "centre ground voters" who did not want to vote for Fine Gael or Sinn Féin supported Ivana Bacik.
Asked about his own performance, he said: “I have no difficulty accepting my share of the responsibility but I am exclusively not responsible for Fianna Fáil’s share of the vote declining from 14 to 5 per cent.
“It’s more complex and complicated than that. Unfortunately politics has become very polarised but I think what this election shows is there is a strong centre ground in Irish politics that wants a strong centre-ground party.”
He continued: “I think the problems that exist within Fianna Fáil are more fundamental than that and we need to do a more careful appraisal of it.
“ I think it is a problem that we have in that we have to be more clear with people what we stand for.”
He said the party needed to make itself more relevant on issues like housing and it needed to be more radical in dealing with the housing crisis.
“[The public] know interest rates are at historically low levels. They know EU fiscal rules have been loosened. They want to see the State get involved more in actively borrowing money to build houses that will be bought by young people,” he said.
“Fianna Fáil does not understand the scale of the problem in housing yet and we have to in order to ensure [our future].
He agreed the low level of support would ring alarm bells for most Fianna Fáil TDs in Dublin. “Although this is extremely disappointing and beyond what we thought would happen, there is an awareness that the party has been declining nationally and in the polls. The reason it resonated today is because it has been the first electoral test that we have seen since the general election”
Fianna Fáil’s worst-ever electoral performance has raised serious questions about the future leadership of Mr Martin, a number of its TDs have said.
A cross-section of party deputies – some speaking on the basis of anonymity – expressed shock and disappointment at the result and said the historically low support level of five per cent required immediate action.
“I do believe we need to ask the real, tough questions and that includes the leadership,” said one TD.
“It is an appropriate question to ask now in the light of the worst election in the party’s history. There’s been discussions all day among us and there’s nothing happening at an official level. If this is not the moment to ignite things, then what will it take?”
Another TD said the party had run a lacklustre campaign and that sense of defeat had permeated across the entire party from day one.
This deputy said fundamental change was needed but did not agree that leadership was an immediate issue. “It can’t all be attributed back to the current leadership. I do think that it will also challenge [the position] of Jim O’Callaghan [the director of elections] in particular.”
Another TD echoed the view that all issues now needed to be addressed including leadership.
Those TDs who spoke on the record all expressed disappointment.
They included Cathal Crowe from Clare: “I was involved in some of the canvasses and it became obvious from an early part of the campaign that it would be lost and it’s hard in that situation to muster enthusiasm, he said.
Pádraig O’Sullivan (Cork North Central) said he was very disappointment and serious questions needed to be asked about the position of the party
“I do think that our election review is long overdue. We need to get to grips with the issues facing the party,” he said.
Minister of State Robert Troy said that the result of 5 per cent could not be argued with. “We are doing good work but it is not resonating with the public,” he said.
“We would be foolish as a party not to look into our messaging.”
“It is very disappointing,” said Niamh Smyth, a TD for Cavan. “It is really important that we take on board the result and learn from it as a matter of urgency.”
Earlier on Friday, Mr Martin said that he is not concerned about his position following the disappointing performance of Fianna Fáil in the byelection.
Speaking after he received his second Covid- 19 vaccine dose at Páirc uí Chaoimh in Cork on Friday, Mr Martin refused to be drawn on a comment made by Mr O’Callaghan.
When asked if he was angry about the remarks made by Mr O’Callaghan, Mr Martin said “no”. He emphasised that he would continue to lead the party.
“I have made it very clear from the outset when I was elected Taoiseach what I intend to do – I do intend to lead this Government.
“Getting through Covid-19 is extremely important, recovering our economy.
“Recovering jobs and prioritising housing and healthcare – these are the issues people are concerned about.
“It is my intention then to, after the first part of Government and the transition and I become Tánaiste, it is my intention to lead the party into the next general election.”
Mr Martin said that Opposition parties traditionally win byelections.
“This will be the 30th byelection since 1990 and this will be the 27th time the Opposition have won. Governments rarely win byelections – they are not in any way markers for a general election.
“ This constituency would not have been our strongest – it never has been.
“We will not have another general election for four years.”
Mr Martin said that he was well-received personally in the Dublin Bay constituency.
“I thank Jim O’Callaghan as [Fianna Fáil] director of elections for his efforts and the contribution that Jim made.”
“I congratulate Ivana Bacik – it seems that she has done very, very well indeed. She is an accomplished parliamentarian in her own right as a senator.”