Micheal Martin’s strength is his early adaption to FF’s changed circumstances

So, Brian Crowley has gone his own way. Choosing a political grouping that contained the British Conservative party was eccentric and perhaps eccentric enough to mute any widespread criticism of Micheal Martin within the wider party.

In the Irish Times Mary Minihan makes a brief assay of where the party is. She makes an important point here:

Unlike some of his egotistical lieutenants, Mr Martin was an early-adaptor, absorbing the scale and shock of seat losses incurred in 2011 and understanding that only a show of unity could bring the party back from the brink.

Although I’ve met quite a few FFers over the years, only a few have been encounters in purely party guise. The first was in the wake of the Cavan Monaghan count in 2011, when I heard one activist muttering to colleagues, ‘now it’s time to show our teeth‘.

For a party of ‘soldiers’ unused to defeat they don’t take it well. Some of the party’s vestigial military instinct long still survives the ditching of its older slightly constitutional means.

But in the distinctly ‘non Boss’ Martin they have sort of weirdly lucked out.

  1. He’s the one sellable vestige of the last government. Non FF people like him. Even if they feel burned by what that last government did to them, he’s a living reminder of some of its more lasting achievements, like the smoking ban and (for now at least) the Belfast Agreement.
  2. The electorate largely did for the most disliked of his old Fianna Fail government colleagues.
  3. Whatever else he is guilty of, it is not trying to fight the last battle. He knows that right now, they remain a small party. He swept aside all talk of leading government pointing out the party remains in insufficient standing to start talking terms.

He’s had a turbulent week and a half. Niall Collins, his justice spokesman, got pinged for writing a clemency letter for the wrong sort of criminal (see Harry McGee for one of the saner treatments of that story).

Martin has two prime factors which have stilled the hand of his party critics. Most obviously perhaps, there’s no one else in the parliamentary party with the stature to take over (O Cuiv’s early rebellion, for example, was quickly quashed).

If that was all, he might face trouble anyway (think of the drift in the SDLP for a handy comparison?). But his strategic trump within the party has been the council results.

Whatever the polls tell us about the overall mood of the country (and the EP polls almost exactly match their reading of national sentiment) in local representatives, Fianna Fail topped (if not by much) all other parties in the Republic.

Power in the Republic generates upwards as well as down and under STV PR new councillors generate new Dail seats. Whilst it is true that the party is only just above where it was in 2009, the landscape around them has changed utterly.

Ironically perhaps, the development of any positive momentum for Fianna Fail (no less than the two government parties) relies on the continuation of the country’s nascent economic recovery.

Over the next two years it will have to find a way to reverse the sheer divergence in public opinion which has led to such a massive rise in independents across the country.

His mission is probably as basic as proving that a political party (almost any political party) can deliver for ordinary people and resists that old Irish urge to trade in false expectations.

What’s missing is a shared understanding of the many problems currently besetting the country or indeed any shared sense of purpose in how to tackle themIf there’s to be a democratically engaged convergence of political opinion/action, both are needed.

The bad news for Fianna Fail is that it has so far failed to get to grips with either of these imperatives. The better news, for them if not the country, is that neither has anyone else.

Martin may be an early adaptor to his party’s changed small status. But if they are to be ambitious enough to make their way slowly back to the centre of Ireland’s political life much greater adaption is needed.


Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty