The Irish Times view on Fianna Fáil: Martin’s tightrope walk

Micheál Martin’s authority as party leader could well hinge on the referendum result

Micheál Martin’s dilemma is how to stake out a clear and distinctive position for Fianna Fáil while keeping the Government in place until the right issue comes along on which it would be politically advantageous to bring it down. Photgraph: Aidan Crawley

Micheál Martin’s dilemma is how to stake out a clear and distinctive position for Fianna Fáil while keeping the Government in place until the right issue comes along on which it would be politically advantageous to bring it down. Photgraph: Aidan Crawley

 

Being leader of the Opposition is generally accepted as being the most challenging job in Irish politics, but Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has an even more difficult task than most of his predecessors.

While he is leader of the main Opposition party he is also responsible for keeping the Government in place until the autumn budget as long as it fulfils the terms of the confidence and supply arrangement. He has straddled the contradictions inherent in his position with considerable skill over the past two years but, as the confidence and supply arrangement enters its final months, that is becoming ever more difficult.

Martin’s dilemma is how to stake out a clear and distinctive position for Fianna Fáil while keeping the Government in place until the right issue comes along on which it would be politically advantageous to bring it down.

Martin knows that he will have only one more shot at becoming Taoiseach and his TDs are also acutely aware of that. He did far better than anybody expected at the last election but will need to do better again next time around and that is not going to be easy. Leo Varadkar’s accession to the Taoiseach’s office has changed the political dynamic and Fine Gael has held a steady though not unbridgeable lead in the opinion polls since then.

That has created considerable nervousness among Fianna Fáil TDs, who had assumed that the party would be the biggest after the next election and thus in pole position to form a government. Martin has ruled out coalition with Sinn Féin even though a number of his TDs favour such an arrangement if the numbers add up. He has also taken a brave stance on the abortion issue, not simply advocating a Yes vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment but supporting the Government’s plan to legislate for unrestricted access to abortion up to 12 weeks.

A substantial majority of his parliamentary party, 31 out of 44, have come out against his approach and a No vote would cause him considerable political embarrassment. His authority as party leader could well hinge on the result.

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