Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Martin's actions prove he was never right for top job

Micheal Martin was the wrong choice to lead Fianna Fail. He was the worst choice of the four contenders in the leadership contest at the end of January of this year.

I said so, clearly and emphatically, in an article in this paper at the end of that month, putting him at the tail-end of the available candidates, a long way behind my first nominee, Eamon O Cuiv. My second, Mary Hanafin, failed to get elected in my own constituency due to the party's madness in running two ministers instead of Hanafin on her own. The third option, Brian Lenihan, is no longer with us.

Fianna Fail's foolishness dated back well before the January leadership change into the autumn of 2010 when Brian Cowen's hold on power was crumbling and when Micheal Martin's self-interest led to his ill-conceived and ill-executed challenge when he fumbled over his membership of the Cabinet while indicating he would seek to replace the party leader.

Fianna Fail was guided -- if that is the correct word -- by the nonsense of the opinion polls, showing Martin as the favourite to succeed. This was no basis for tackling the huge crisis that faced the organisation.

Part of that crisis was the exposure of Brian Cowen as having made a mess of the country's finances, plunging us into massive debt. This could have been avoided if Cowen had done his job as Finance Minister and then as Taoiseach.

Fianna Fail came late to the realisation that its leader could no longer be relied on to shout his way through another electoral contest and win. The party panicked, made the predictable but wrong choice. Almost a year later, the party is still trying to pick up the pieces.

It is doing so in the face of a shrewd, tough adversary in Sinn Fein, a party whose politics require it, as early as possible, to replace Fianna Fail as the main opposition party. This opportunity, once unthinkable, is now firmly on the cards.

This is largely, though not wholly, because under Micheal Martin's leadership the problem of opposition-party rivalry has taken precedence over the more fundamental needs of restructuring the lost objectives that brought about the near-annihilation of Fianna Fail in the February election.

The complete mess made so far over the Fianna Fail presidential candidacy is a direct result of that thinking combined with Micheal Martin's predisposition for stroke politics and his failure to consult with party membership.

But the malaise is much deeper. He has not atoned for the party's disastrous record under Brian Cowen. His apology, when he became leader, was puerile and inadequate. He said: "I am sorry for the mistakes we made as a party and for the mistakes I made." It was a starting point, limp and inadequate.

In the light of what has happened since, he should really have added: "But we in Fianna Fail are sticking with our mistakes and we stand over them." That is really what characterises the party's position almost a year after its present leader began his move to take over. He achieved his objective, but carried into his leadership role all the baggage that he and his fellow Cabinet members -- most of them departed -- had used as a poor substitute for proper, strict policy and effective government.

The country, mercifully, is getting that from Enda Kenny and the new coalition administration. It, too, has to bear the burden of its predecessors' mistakes but is doing so in a fashion that is dedicated to confronting a set of grave problems with energy and wholly in the country's best interests.

Not everyone thinks it is right in what it is doing, but it is certainly continuing to show up the shortcomings of Fianna Fail and Micheal Martin is revealing no capacity for reversing this and not even any wish to do so. He is not searching for renewal.

Despite the smallness of the party he now leads, he does not seem able to unite it.

More than anything else, he has created a vacuum where the main opposition strategy should be.

Political vacuums are there to be filled. Sinn Fein, whether we agree with it and accept what it says or not, is an organisation brimful with answers to our problems and they are answers, in the main, that directly confront the policies being pursued by other parties.

It is symptomatic of Fianna Fail's confusion about its future -- in terms of leadership and policy -- that the prevailing issue is the presidential election, on which the party leader has shown himself not just a stroke-merchant but one who got the stroke badly wrong, damaged his standing among his followers and is now looking for something to turn up that will save face.

In due course when the small and demoralised parliamentary party meets to consider what it does about the presidency it should really be considering much weightier matters affecting its leadership, its policies and its future.

Yet its other over-riding problem will be how to sustain its claim to the role of the main opposition party.

Fianna Fail now lies between the firmly operational government on the one hand, and the aggressive radical alternative opposition party of Sinn Fein, full of ideas, aggression and self-confidence, on the other.

It is a grim situation in which to face the resumption of Dail politics and the difficult autumn ahead of us all.