I discussed the implications of the latest political scandal for An Taoiseach Micheál Martin’s leadership of Fianna Fáil on RTÉ Radio One’s This Week show on Sunday August 28th, 2022.
My view is that An Taoiseach was hoping to avoid losing Deputy Troy as a Junior Minister as he did not wish to face into the prospect of nominating a replacement at this time. There are five or six very capable and willing candidates for appointment, each feeling that they have an “understanding” with the party leader that they will be promoted when the reshuffle comes in late December.
The increasingly beleagured Fianna Fáil leader knows that when he appoints one of this group, he will disappoint four or five others. He has been leader for almost 12 years… only his most diehard loyalist colleagues, of whom there are just a handful, believe he will lead them into the next election, in just over two years. Most of his coilleagues, including some who profess support and loyality know that the party needs to start thinking now about who will lead it next.
Martin has just 15 weeks remaining as Taoiseach… but does he have much more time than that as leader? He clearly hopes he does. He hopes he will get a decent run as Tanaiste, but the numbers within the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party are now so finely balanced that the leader cannot risk losing support – especially by again disappointing someone he has previously disappointed. He certainly cannot afford to sack anyone, which may help explain why he was reluctant to act as speedily and decisively as he has previously done.
Though not all 30, or so, Oireachtas members who gathered for a meeting in Leinster House to discuss the party’s current travails could be counted upon to back a motion opposing Martin’s continuing as leader, it still spelled trouble for the leader. It was a signal that a sizeable cohort of those not on the ministerial payroll are concerned at Fianna Fáil’s continuining struggle to carve out a clear and distinct political identity. Referring to concerns about “identity” is now code for “leadership”.
Ironically, it was Minister of State Troy who went on RTÉ Radio the following morning to query the appropriateness of this bankbench meeting, saying that T.D.s and Senators had ample opportunity to discuss all matters at the weekly parliamentray party meetings. By 10am that morning the leadership response had changed. Wiser counsel was prevailing with the Chief Whip, Jack Chambers sounding a far more conciliatory note on Today with Clare Byrne and welcoming the gathering as positive.
The bottom line is that Martin is no longer in full control of his party. This is partly a consequence of his time as leader gradually approaching its inevitable end, but it is also a result of a series of grevious political errors. These date back to his solo-run extension of the Confidence and Supply agreement with Fine Gael and the delivery of a woefully lack-lustre and uninspiring 2020 election campaign, but they continue to this day.
The primary political argument for Fianna Fáil’s going into government and returning to office a Fine Gael party that had been rejected by the voters – at Fianna Fáil’s own advice – was that the party could only restore its fortunes by showing the voters that it was still the party best equipped to successfully manage the country. Virtually all the opinion polls since suggest that voters may see Martin himself as being capable of delivering capable management of government, but they do not see his party in the same light.
Martin cannot detach himself from his responsibility for the poor management of his party and of its fortunes. The question for his back bench colleagues is how long more can they can afford to wait to do the detaching for him by finding a new leader who can reconnect the party with the voters?