You cannot blame those in Fianna Fáil – led by serial rebel Marc MacSharry – who have, at the twenty-ninth hour, decided that the time has come for a change in leadership. There is nothing else, after all, left to try. The party’s performance in the Dublin Bay South bye-election was so abysmal, so humiliating, and, above all, so irrelevant, that it is probably too late to keep the ship afloat.
Much of the party, those half-heartedly rallying behind Mr. Martin, have effectively given up. It is no coincidence that his strongest supporters in public are all those either earning a pay cheque from the Government, or a pay cheque from party headquarters or the European Parliament. At this point, if you are not actually employed, at the party’s patronage, to argue that Mr. Martin is the right man for the leadership job, you don’t bother.
Mr. Martin sealed Fianna Fáil’s fate by entering Government with Fine Gael. He did so, remember, after protesting with the piety of an altar boy for the duration of the election campaign that he would not do so, under any circumstances. He told the public to vote for Fianna Fáil because they were the only party who would get Fine Gael out of Government. Along with the Greens, they ended up being one of only two parties willing to put Fine Gael back into Government.
Fine Gael voters, naturally, were happy enough with this. As a result, that party has suffered no loss in support. They betrayed nobody.
Fianna Fáil, on the other hands, having duped the electorate, do not seem to understand that their own voters, in large part, have written them off.
In Government, such as it is, it is almost impossible to discern a single clear Fianna Fáil priority. They are for housing, they say. Who is not? They are for climate action. Who is not? They are leading the country through covid, and taking NPHET’s advice. Again, and again, and again: who is not?
The main reason that Mr. Martin remains the leader, of course, is that the party is too witless to oust him, and unable to identify a single person from amongst their ranks who would clearly be better. The great fear is that if they replace Mr. Martin with, say, Jim O’Callaghan, their poll ratings will not improve. Even Mr. Martin’s critics are either unable to imagine, or unable to articulate, a clear argument for how they ended up in this mess. But it is not difficult to explain.
When Mr. Martin became leader, he had one singular goal: To lead the party back to power, by any means necessary. There was not, and never has been, any particular vision for the country. The plan was always, and simply, to follow the voters and the polls wherever they went, and stand before them proclaiming that Fianna Fáil agreed with them. This meant that on issue after issue, whether it be gay marriage, or abortion, or housing, or a United Ireland, Fianna Fáil did not lead. Under Mr. Martin it has followed the voters everywhere, only to be rightly ridiculed at every step along the way as a Johnny-come-lately to every party.
In the past decade, it is impossible to identify any single issue on which Fianna Fáil’s leadership has made an impact. Mr. Martin imagines himself, in his defence, as the voice of middle Ireland. He waits until an issue has significant support, and then beatifies it with Fianna Fáil support. This is an invaluable service to the rest of the establishment: On every major issue, Mr. Martin can be presented as the moderate voice. “See”, they say, “even Mr. Martin is on our side now”. This earns the party media coverage, and Mr. Martin exults in it. He never seems to realise that he is the butt of the joke: “See”, they are saying, “even that troglodyte can see the light”.
Mr. Martin’s vision, and policy, can therefore be summed up as this: Everything Fine Gael, Labour, and Sinn Fein want, but more slowly, and with perhaps a few committees to report on it first.
Changing the leader will not make a difference. If Fianna Fáil wants to recover, it must change that perception, and that approach. It must identify what it wants to be, on which issues it wants to lead, and what it would do differently and distinctively to other parties. The problem is simple: It does not know, and nobody in its parliamentary party knows, either.
And so it lumbers on, rejected by everybody as the least relevant party in Ireland. No matter what you care about, no matter what your issue is, somebody offers you more than Fianna Fáil. If you are a voter of the left, or a nationalist voter, or even a smug centrist, somebody is on the ballot paper who you find more satisfying and relevant than Fianna Fáil.
The party is proof of the old adage: He who stands for everything, stands for nothing.
This leadership heave will make no difference. Fianna Fáil is irrelevant. The only purpose it now serves in Irish politics is to be held up as an example of progress by those who will never vote for it. “See?”, they say, “even Fianna Fáil agrees with us now”.
The only relevant question left about this heave is this: Whether Mr. Martin will be the last Fianna Fáil Taoiseach, or the second last.