Belfast Telegraph

The silver lining in the cloud over Fianna Fail

Brian Cowen dissolves the Dail tomorrow and whoever succeeds him it won't be Micheal Martin. Still, it's not all doom and gloom, argues Henry McDonald

Jack Lynch was the last Cork man to lead Fianna Fail before Micheal Martin took control of the Soldiers of Destiny. But that is where the parallels between one of the Republic's most revered politicians and the eighth man to head the party end.

Lynch has two major achievements in his legacy: first, in spite of his infamous "not stand idly by" speech in 1969, he actually prevented the more militant nationalist forces in Fianna Fail from propelling the Republic into armed conflict across the border at the start of the Troubles; secondly, the former Cork hurling legend secured the biggest majority for a single party in the history of the state.

In 1977, Lynch and Fianna Fail returned to Dail Eireann with a majority of 23 seats, which, until next month, would be the highest margin of victory in a modern Irish election. However, the Lynch record is about to be broken.

Even Fianna Fail number-crunchers now accept that the next government after February 25 will have a majority of 30-plus. But this time it will be an anti-Fianna Fail alliance - in all likelihood Fine Gael and Labour.

Micheal Martin's task, then, is to try and reverse this historic defeat and rebuild Fianna Fail from the grassroots up.

His immediate priority must be to minimise losses and this means pushing the current poll ratings of the party to at least 20%. Such a figure could translate to around 30 seats - more than the party has currently.

On the personal front, there is a great deal of sympathy for Martin, who lost a child to a long-term illness last autumn.

His youngest daughter, Leana, died in October at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London, while 11 years earlier he and his wife lost their son, Ruari, in infancy.

He was one of the more youthful members of the last Irish Cabinet, having been born in 1960, and is regarded as one of Fianna Fail's best communicators.

One concern, though, remains that he may be too nice for the rough and tumble of the live television debates between the party leaders. Martin will have to sharpen his tongue to leave a few bruises on Enda Kenny, Eamon Gilmore and Gerry Adams.

Martin also has plenty of ministerial experience, having served under Bertie Ahern in the Health Department, which successive politicians have nicknamed Angola, because of the never-ending civil war within the service.

He has inherited a party that is definitely in the doldrums as it feels the ire of the Irish public. The majority of the electorate blame Fianna Fail for the recession and, latterly, the fiscal crisis that resulted in Ireland going begging to the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank.

The common refrain in Dublin and beyond is that Fianna Fail was also far too close to some of the so-called 'golden circle' in the building trade and the banking system, whose greed and incompetence caused the crisis.

The revelations at the start of this year that Brian Cowen had met Anglo Irish Bank boss Sean Fitzpatrick at a luxury golf course compounded widespread suspicions (even if they were and are without foundation or proof) that there was a 'toxic nexus' between the banks, the builders and Fianna Fail.

Martin has to dispel that impression and try to paint the new Fianna Fail as independent from the "golden circle" that came to power first under Charles Haughey and later Bertie Ahern.

One key strategy will be to declare a 'political ceasefire' with the new government after the election. In effect, Fianna Fail will support the administration's fiscal and economic policies so long as a Fine Gael-led government broadly follows the outline of the last one's four-year recovery plan.

This means supporting three more years of cuts to public spending, further tax hikes and additional slashing of services and the minimum wage. Martin will back all of this using the language of national interest and his party's patriotic duty to get the country back on its feet.

During this cessation of political hostilities after the election, Martin may reflect that the massive majority facing his diminished forces on the other side of the Dail floor may not be as impregnable as he might first have imagined. And he can turn back to the legacy of Jack Lynch to learn this lesson.

Fianna Fail's majority in 1977 turned out to be a mixed blessing for Lynch and his high command. The comfort of having such a lead over Fine Gael and Labour created a space within Fianna Fail for dissenters to emerge from the ruling party's backbenches.

Individual TDs broke the party whip and, in the case of Haughey and his cabal, ultimately resulted in a vicious and acrimonious internal coup that ousted Lynch and put his old enemy in charge.

While Martin will remain a responsible leader of the opposition, he will be secretly hoping that the double-edged sword of big majorities will ultimately produce rebellion and resentment among the governing parties - particularly Left-wing Labour TDs.

It will be a long way back for Micheal Martin and Fianna Fail, but there are still chinks of light on this most gloomy of horizons.

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