Micheál Martin is now arguably as dominant as Bertie Ahern was at party’s helm

Despite internal criticism of the Cork TD over the years, the Tánaiste now leads a more settled party.

If you scroll back two years, most TDs in Fianna Fáil would have predicted with a fair degree of accuracy the narrative of the early months of 2024.

The party would continue to struggle in opinion polls. There would be a change of leader. A fresh face from a new generation would emerge to revitalise the party in advance of the local and European elections and then lead them into the general election.

And it all came to pass. Except it happened for Fine Gael, not Fianna Fáil.

The party with seemingly continuous leadership issues since 2010 has persevered with its leader, while the party which seemingly had an anchored structure now has a new leader charged with reversing Fine Gael’s wane.


Fianna Fáil will go into this summer’s elections with a leader who has been in situ for 13 years and arguably as dominant as Bertie Ahern was at the party’s helm.

All the predictions of Micheál Martin being eased out — that we have heard periodically over the past decade — have come to nothing.

By the summer of last year, most Fianna Fáil TDs had come around to the view that not only would Martin not be stepping down any time soon, but he would be leading the party into the next general election.

There was no dramatic showdown. It just happened in the way rust happens. Fianna Fáil TDs and Senators might sometimes struggle to distinguish the party from others but it is in a far more settled place than Fine Gael has been.

Unlike its Coalition partner which will face into the general election without a third of its sitting TDs, the vast majority of existing Fianna Fáil deputies will be standing for re-election.

“We are in a bit of bother,” a Fianna Fáil TD who has experienced the slings and arrows of high office confided several months ago. “But we are in a better place than Fine Gael.”

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That said, the party’s opinion poll ratings have been mediocre but there is a view in the ranks that there are “silent” Fianna Fáilers and the true level of its support is a little higher.

The first true test of that will be the forthcoming local and European elections. This weekend’s ardfheis in the Royal Convention Centre in Dublin is very much focused towards those elections.

Ardfheiseanna have long been a vehicle to allow parties to showcase policies, messages and candidates to the public, especially when an election is dawning.

The schedule features ministers highlighting all the party’s main policy areas: building more homes; safer streets; rural Ireland; financial stability; and the disability sector. There is no reference to climate change or immigration on the agenda.

Indeed the only motions relate to foreign affairs and defence, and the continuing debate within the party on neutrality.

Fianna Fáil might have been a little more sure-footed than Fine Gael of late. But Simon Harris’s arrival could change the dynamic, certainly in the short term, for the June elections.

In reality, too, both have been lagging well behind Sinn Féin — and Independents for that matter.

Fianna Fáil gained 12 council seats in the local elections in 2019 to win 279. It will be hard-pressed to repeat that performance now, especially given the reality that Sinn Féin — which lost half its 160 seats in 2019 — will double its tally, and then some.

Expect the focus of Fianna Fáil this weekend to be on the European elections, which have more potential for claiming a win. The choice of Dublin as the location is very much geared towards sitting MEP Barry Andrews, who will be in a dogfight to retain his seat in the capital. Billy Kelleher should be expected to hold his seat. And in Midlands North West, having Barry Cowen on the ticket should give the party its first seat in that constituency for a decade.

Getting three MEPs elected would be portrayed as a win, although there are slim hopes that Lisa Chambers or Niall Blaney in Midlands North West or Cynthia Ní Mhurchú in South could pull a rabbit out of a hat.

It looks unlikely to be Martin’s last ardfheis. His colleagues now believe he won’t go to Europe and will lead the party into the next election.

It’s hard to see the party regaining its once-dominant position in Irish politics but, for now, it’s not slipping into irrelevance. It also needs to be able to show much stronger gains on its two big promises for this Government: building more homes and improving health services.

Another big quandary will come when Martin eventually steps down as leader because unlike in Fine Gael, there is no obvious successor. And that could cause problems.