AS the Fianna Fáil party meets this weekend for its 78th Árd Fheis in Dublin’s RDS, a lot of serious thought will have to be given to its important next big step, which it needs to result in further progress in its comeback effort after the lows of the general election of 2011 when it took the full brunt of the electorate’s displeasure with the way it led the country blindly to a devastating economic downturn.
Having just taken over the leadership of Fianna Fáil from the hapless Brian Cowen, who was Minister for Finance when things were good and then Taoiseach when the banks had to be bailed out by the country and it, in turn, bailed out the EU-IMF-ECB troika, Micheál Martin was not expected to work any miracles with the general election of six years ago and the party just had to take its punishment at the polls. But he quickly set about rebuilding it methodically from a very low base and the first signs of progress came as early as the 2014 local elections.
In the 2016 general election, Fianna Fáil more than doubled its representation in the Dáil from an abysmal 20 seats up to 44, however Fine Gael – despite losing 26 seats – remained the biggest party with 50 and Enda Kenny became the first Fine Gael Taoiseach to serve in consecutive terms of office after eventually managing to form a minority government. This came with support from Fianna Fáil through a ‘Confidence and Supply’ agreement, which peeved some party diehards on both sides, but served to buy time for them to try to get back on an election footing.
New Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is gearing up Fine Gael for an election, although nobody knows yet when it will be and he will continue to keep us guessing. Neither he or Micheál Martin will want to be seen as the one who pulls the plug on the three-budget ‘Confidence and Supply’ agreement before the third one this time next year and to undo the political stability it has brought. However, many people feel that this stability has become more like stalemate, with low volumes of legislation being passed, and that their public representatives are not doing the job they were elected to do efficiently enough.
Will Micheál Martin have the courage to acknowledge this unsatisfactory situation, terminate the arrangement with government and go for broke by triggering a general election? In this regard, he has reached another crossroads as leader and again finds himself between a rock and a hard place.
Timing is everything and he cannot afford to be outflanked by Fine Gael on this one if he is to generate the required momentum going into an election campaign and to have Fianna Fáil taken seriously again as contenders for government. Rallying the troops at the Fianna Fáil Árd Fheis will serve to up the ante for a few days at least, but underlying all the rhetoric is a very real fear that Micheál Martin could become the party’s first leader never to become Taoiseach.
So far, he has been doing a decent enough job of rehabilitating the party’s image, but the skeletons remain in the closet and he needs to keep that door tightly shut if he wants to entertain any hope of Fianna Fáil again becoming the largest party after the next general election. Even though it may be a while away yet, he still needs to be getting the party into election mode this weekend for what will be an epic make-or-break struggle.