Martin has nothing to lose by being tough on Sinn Féin

Posted By: November 22, 2017

Brian Feeney. Irish News. Belfast. Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin is in a bit of pickle.

This time last year the future was looking bright. He had presided over one of the most miraculous recoveries since Lazarus. In 2011 Fianna Fáil was turfed out of office after the financial crash. The party slumped from 71 seats to an incredible 20, the lowest number since 1927.

Martin set about renewing and reforming the party; some people thought it might take a decade, while others thought Fianna Fáil was finished.

In the general election in February last year, however, Martin confounded the skeptics. Fianna Fáil returned with 40 seats, far, far short of where the party customarily sat but a solid foundation for rebuilding. Furthermore, Fianna Fáil’s resurrection had prevented Fine Gael from gaining a workable majority. That sealed the fate of Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

After much wheeling and dealing the outcome was a dog’s dinner of a government. A Fine Gael taoiseach sustained by a confidence-and-supply deal with Fianna Fáil and half a dozen maverick independents who got various bits of contrived ministerial offices. They have remained undisciplined and unmanageable. Obviously a temporary fix. It has turned out to be anything but.

As the new government ran into headwinds from housing, health, Garda corruption scandals, gang murders in Dublin and much more, Fianna Fáil began to rise in the polls in 2016, then go ahead of Fine Gael. Micheál Martin and his strategists decided they would wait until polls showed a steady indication that Fianna Fáil could win 60 seats, then pull the plug on Fine Gael, build a coalition. It was just a matter of time.

It hasn’t happened. Fianna Fáil stalled in May. Fine Gael came back and then the party got a bounce with a new young taoiseach. Now Fine Gael is running about three points ahead of Fianna Fáil on 34 percent.

Martin’s in a cleft stick. He can’t pull the plug now but if he waits until the next budget in 2018 he’ll be blamed for all the government’s failures. After all, he’s supporting the government in those failures but trying to pretend he’s in opposition at the same time. Some of his more nervous TDs are pressing for him to withdraw in the Spring.

However, Micheál Martin is a noted ditherer. The confidence-and-supply deal was to last three budgets – that is, until November 2018. On the other hand, if he waits until 2019 and ends up behind Fine Gael in the middle of a bad Brexit deal, everyone will ask, why did you wait? The fate that stares him in the face is to be the first Fianna Fáil leader never to be Taoiseach because the party will dump him instantly if Fine Gael stays ahead at the next election.

All this explains his vehement objections to any deal with Sinn Féin. Martin has to win some votes back from Fianna Fáil supporters who switched to Fine Gael. The slightest hint that he’s soft on Sinn Féin and Fine Gael will pounce reminding voters that Brian Lenihan senior at the height of the IRA campaign said Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin were ‘political cousins’.

Martin’s reticence and hostility don’t convince as many as a dozen of his TDs some of whom would quite like Sinn Féin transfers. Others know a coalition with Sinn Féin is preferable to an unthinkable humiliating replay of confidence and supply in another Fine Gael minority government.

Martin, however, can afford to be rigid in his hostility to Sinn Féin. He knows that if he can’t get ahead of Leo Varadkar and beat him in an election he’s finished as party leader. If there’s to be a coalition with Sinn Féin because Dáil arithmetic dictates it, that coalition won’t be led by him but by a new Fianna Fáil leader who has no promises to renege on.

In the meantime, Martin is on borrowed time. He will have to keep up his relentless attacks on Sinn Féin partly to reassure wavering Fine Gael voters but also to try to convince voters they’re wasting their time voting Sinn Féin because they’re political pariahs. Given the jam he’s in, he has nothing to lose targeting Sinn Féin.