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Can Micheál Martin really become the next Taoiseach?

Analysis: It would have been inconceivable after 2011 that Fianna Fáil could return to government so soon. But it might happen.

Micheál Martin at the Fianna Fáil think-in today
Micheál Martin at the Fianna Fáil think-in today
Image: Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews.ie

MICHEÁL MARTIN WAS the subject of much derision when he said last September that he was preparing to be the next Taoiseach.

But is the idea really that far-fetched?

As Fianna Fáil gathers for its annual parliamentary party think-in today and tomorrow it’s worth considering some of the reasons why the party could be in a position to form and lead the next government. 

The widespread view is that Fianna Fáil will, at the very least, return more TDs than the 20 it currently has to the 32nd Dáil. But many analysts believe that the only way the party can get into government is to end Civil War politics and align with Fine Gael.

However, Fianna Fáilers have little interest in what the analysts might say. Asked recently about the prospect of a Fine Gael-Labour pact during the next election, Barry Cowen, Fianna Fáil’s impressive environment spokesperson, responded bullishly.

“Let’s look at it from a different perspective,” he said. “We’ll go out and try and win as many votes as we can on the basis of the engagement we have with the public in relation to how we address issues that are of importance to the people.

Maybe having done that maybe we’ll be the largest party after the next election. Maybe somebody else might have a decision to make about what they do and they don’t do in order to form a government after the next election.

The alternative

14/09/2015 Fianna Fail Think In. Pictured is Willi Willie O'Dea and Micheál Martin were members of the last government. Could they be in the next one? Source: Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews.ie

The party is preparing for government whether people believe that’s realistic or not. The old argument that it has no policies was trotted out again this morning, but it’s no longer true.

Fianna Fáil has positioned itself on big issues like housing, water and taxation in recent months and will go to the country with an alternative to what’s on offer from either the two government parties, Sinn Féin, independents or the hard-left.

The question is whether voters will buy into it. These are the same voters who, in 2011, rejected the party in large numbers amid huge anger over the economic catastrophe that hit the country.

At that point there was talk that Fianna Fáil was finished for a generation. There was even a suggestion of a party name change in order to rid itself of the toxic brand it had become.

But just over four years later, the Soldiers of Destiny are now the largest party in government at local level and secured a recent by-election success with Bobby Aylward returning to the Dáil as a TD for Carlow-Kilkenny.

The party has changed to one-member, one-vote. A democratic move that it hopes underlines its commitment to genuine reform of its internal structures. Martin believes the very fact there are tensions at constituency level means the party is recovering.

“Looking at it objectively it means that people are very anxious to stand for the party, to seek the nomination of the party. It’s very different to 2011 in some respects,” he said today.

The very fact that we have that level of intense competition now to get on a Fianna Fáil ticket, I take as a positive and it’s something that we want to build on.

Holding government to account

27/3/2012 Michael McGrath Private Members Bills Darragh O'Brien, Michael McGrath and Thomas Byrne are three of Fianna Fáil's most impressive performers. Source: /Photocall Ireland

More than any other party, Fianna Fáil has held the government to account over the last four years. It can reasonably claim to have helped oust Alan Shatter and ensure James Reilly was demoted from health. It’s in challenging the government that Martin and his troops have been the most successful.

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On mortgages, party finance spokesperson Micheal McGrath has repeatedly castigated the government’s approach and presented alternatives that would force the banks to do more for distressed borrowers. The coalition has, belatedly, taken some of his ideas on board.

In the Seanad, Ned O’Sullivan has secured many column inches with his war on seagulls. But it shouldn’t be forgotten that Fianna Fáil has repeatedly embarrassed the government. Star performers like Darragh O’Brien and Thomas Byrne have emerged and both are on course to return to the Dáil.

While Fianna Fáil is still struggling on the female candidate front the party, publicly at least, is absolutely confident that 30 per cent of its Dáil hopefuls will be women. Getting them selected has not been without its controversies and getting them elected will be a big challenge.

The polls show Fianna Fáil hovering in the high teens or low 20s. But with an election still as far off as February the party can justifiably claim that it does better in the polling booth then it does with the pollsters. Last year’s local elections and successive by-elections are evidence of that.

As inconceivable as it may have seemed in February 2011, when the party lost 50 TDs, Fianna Fáil will go the country with a real, and what it argues is a fairer and more balanced alternative, at the next general election.

Seeing as Gerry Adams apparently has no desire to be Taoiseach, it’s left to Martin to offer himself as the only alternative to Enda Kenny, a position the Fianna Fáil leader did not deny today.

With the current Taoiseach’s standing so low right now, it’s not inconceivable that it will be Micheál Martin who will lead the next government.

Micheál Martin: I’m the only alternative Taoiseach to Enda Kenny

Read: How many of these TDs can hold their seats?

About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

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