A tough year for Martin – and it will get tougher

My column in Saturday’s Evening Herald (Jan 28 2012) on Micheal Martin’s first year a leader of Fianna Fáil


A year ago this week {or “today” if published on February 26} Michael Martin sought and won the toughest and possibly most thankless job in Irish politics today: leader of Fianna Fáil.

Looking back over the past year there must have been moments when he felt he hadn’t so much won the prize, as been landed with it. Yet he did win it.

The manner in which he took a stand and challenged for the leadership helped him throw off his previous reputation as an ultra cautious politician who preferred to kick problems to committees rather than taking tough decisions.

On becoming leader [this day one year ago] he found himself at the helm of a demoralised and dissolute party facing into an election for which it was woefully unprepared.

The once great election winning machine that had been Fianna Fáil limped and staggered its way over the line with its new leader’s energetic and impassioned debate performances as rare high points in an otherwise horrendous campaign.

The result was best described by a northern colleague of mine as the greatest political punishment beating ever. The public was not just disillusioned and angry with Fianna Fáil and its Ministers: it had no interest in its views or opinions.

While his first full year in the job has been tough, it could actually have been worse. At the outset many pundits thought the very best he could hope for was stemming the tide of Fianna Fáil’s decline.

Recent opinion polls and the unexpected second place showing in the Dublin West by-election point to the party not just halting the decline, but even reversing it a bit. But there will be no one around Martin popping the champagne corks for a long while yet.

While the party’s prospects may look a tad better now than a year ago: its future is still by no means assured. The party has a long way to go before the public will be ready to listen to what it has to say.

One of Martin’s successes, if this is the right word, has been to get the party’s membership to grasp the new political reality that Fianna Fáil can no longer take its continued existence or relevance as inevitable.

This was no easy lesson for the party to accept. In some ways it is still a work in progress. While there is much talk of reforming both how the party is run and how it develops policy, these have yet to be implemented.

Hopefully, the reconnection Martin has making between the leadership and the members through his constituency visits and personal engagement should enable him to drive through a meaningful reform package.

But it is not as if everything has gone his way. While the right decision was eventually made; the very public “will they/won’t they” row on running a candidate for theArastook its toll. Likewise, Martin’s sometimes over wordy and earnest contributions at Leader’s Questions in the Dáil have not helped convey the idea of a strong leader.

This latter criticism is often attributed to his need to attack on two fronts at once.  Martin is not just targeting the government; he is also targeting the other opposition alternative in Sinn Féin.

Another explanation is that Sinn Féin now has a much bigger back office and research resource than Fianna Fáil. Addams and Co may be reading from scripts, but they are well crafted and written ones

It is not as if his task will get any easier either.

In the coming weeks Martin faces the prospect of dealing with the fallout of the Mahon Tribunal’s report. While there is no confirmed date for its publication, there is much speculation that it may be released just before Fianna Fail’s Árd Fheis at the beginning of March.

Talk about bad timing.

Whatever happens, Martin’s own position is secure. He has from now until the Locals and Europeans in 2014, at least, to show that he can lead the party to recover some of the public trust and confidence it lost.

After one full year, the toughest job in Irish politics is going to get even tougher.


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