SOMETIMES sorry is insufficient. An apology has to be accepted to be complete. Ivan in the Examiner

Martin’s most momentous choice as Fianna Fáil leader? Fine Gael

By Ivan Yates

Thursday, March 08, 2012

SOMETIMES sorry is insufficient. An apology has to be accepted to be complete.

Micheál Martin competently navigated his first ard fheis as party
leader. Centrepiece of his presidential address was the unequivocal
apology forFianna Fáil’s failures in government. This fell short of
providing any specifics. He is certainly not sorry for the bank
bailout. Sorry for Nama? Partnership allowed to rule the roost?
Nationalising Anglo or Nationwide? Benchmarking? EU/IMF/ECB bailout?
Lack of depth in contrition smacks of tokenism. The standing ovation
from delegates was bizarre. The warmth of welcome for urinating on
Bertie and Cowen represented a somersault on previous diehard loyalty.
In reality, they were accepting an apology for the loss of 58 Dáil
seats. Sorry for themselves.

Leader of the opposition has always been the dirtiest job in Irish
politics. One can only talk, rather than act. Lack of executive power
means weakened personal authority. Many a taoiseach has appeared
ineffective leading their party on opposition benches. The office
makes the man. Martin’s task is insurmountable. With only 19 TDs, he
has to win 60 seats to lead his party into government as taoiseach.
The extent of party collapse was so great in the last election that
surely it will take two terms before they can become the largest party
again. Voter volatility has to reach new heights to allow FF to pole
vault back in one leap. Even if an entire new cohort of councillors
are elected in 2014, it seems impossible to go from one seat in Dublin
to the required 20+.

Personal prospects of Micheál Martin being taoiseach are poor. He is
likely to be a rarity — an FF leader who does not become taoiseach.
History is littered with leaders who initiated renewal of their party,
without becoming prime minister. William Hague, Michael Howard,
Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock, John Smith, Alan Dukes, Michael Noonan and
others found themselves in the right job at the wrong time. They
inherited leadership at a time of transition, rather than on the cusp
of power. They were consigned to history as caretaker leaders. Martin
has personally lost out on lucrative lump sum and pension entitlements
as a former minister because he is serving TD. The goalposts are too
far away to have a kickable opportunity.

Without the oxygen of power, parties become restive. Impatient
politicos vent their frustrations through pursuit of personal
ambition. Éamon Ó Cuív traversed the country (rubber chicken circuit
through constituencies) as deputy leader. Invariably, grassroot
members told him furtively what a great leader he would make. His
pedigree as grandson of the party’s founder provides him with
impeccable DNA. His urban Dublin upbringing and west of Ireland
constituency makes him ideal. As a former cabinet minister, his CV
stands scrutiny.

He made his first pitch for the top job openly last week. Previously,
he cultivated distance between himself and Martin over handling of the
presidential candidacy and septic tank charges. Europe now provides
him with a policy principle to openly defy his leadership opponent.

Ó Cuív badly misjudged the party mood. On the eve of the first party
conference in three years was the worst possible timing for disloyalty
— given the low morale and consequent need for unity. FF adopted
European advocacy for five decades. Flirtation with Euroscepticism at
this time, smacks of a rearguard response to opinion poll threats from
Sinn Féin. The rebel stance elicited no public internal support.
Martin correctly swiftly dispatched Ó Cuív from his post, with the
prospect of losing the party whip when he votes against the EU treaty.

No doubt, with the likely retirement of Pat “the Cope” Gallagher as
MEP, he will be manoeuvred into pursuing his Euro ideals as a
representative of the Connacht/Ulster constituency.

A pro-Europe position is a no-brainer for FF. To abandon past
Europhile positions would be totally opportunistic, while preaching a
constructive opposition strategy. FF will always be a party of
government rather than protest. The establishment, both business and
institutional, have a vested interest in sustaining membership of the
euro zone — we’re too far in to opt out now.

The real crux for Martin and FF is to deal with their fundamental
problem, namely an identity crisis. The core value and party brand has
been power. Being in government, with all its contingent pragmatism
and expediency, was the glue that held the broad church together.
Magnetism of getting things done in the real world provided corporate
donations and career opportunities for ambitious young politicians.
Without office, FF lost its principal attractiveness. The central
credo has evaporated.

FF has to decide whether they are fundamentally low tax/low spend or
for greater government intervention. Will they be liberal or
conservative on issues of same-sex adoption and legalised abortion? In
conflict between public and private sectors on pay and pensions, who
will they side with?

Alana McRee’s dog opted to travel a little bit of the road with
everybody. It doesn’t work in fragmented opposition, because being all
things to all people ends up being bland and indistinct. In
government, your decisions determine your political priorities. In
opposition, policy positions determine your brand. Fine Gael and Enda
Kenny waltzed into power, because of the incumbent’s implosion. FF
faces Sinn Féin competition for market share. They stake out polarised
positions, which must flush out FF.

A CONVEYOR belt of events provide for inevitable attrition and loss of
popularity for Fine Gael and Labour. Assessing downside risks ahead
for the Government, it’s certain they will become greatly disliked.
Public expenditure this year will be €51.7bn. Tax revenue is unlikely
to exceed €35bn. Heavy lifting is awaited in reducing social welfare
by several hundred million. Promises to the troika on welfare reform
remain to be dealt with. Household taxation in the form of the €100
charge, site valuation tax or broadcasting levy must be enacted. A
second bailout, beyond 2013, will provide creditors with opportunity
to insist on more specific terms and conditions of austerity.
Privatisation plans have still to move from concept to reality. Nama’s
role and profitability for the two pillar banks (AIB and BOI) are
subject to considerable uncertainty.

For FF to capitalise on FG/Labour odium, they will become more
adversarial, destructive and populist. This political cycle never
changes. If a new right of centre party (Progressive Democrats, Mark
Two) appears, FF’s previous ‘catch all’ stance could catch nothing.

For Martin, the most momentous dilemma is whether to coalesce with
Fine Gael after the 2016 election. The best-case scenario for FF is
the combined loss of 60 seats between government parties. The
likelihood is FG will seek a new partner to secure an overall
majority. Will Martin play the long game, passing up a final
opportunity to be minister again or will he finally bury the last
vestiges of civil war politics?

These parties have the same policies and worldview. This will be the
defining point of his leadership. Banishing Bertie & Co, post the
Mahon Tribunal report comes next. If Martin rules out coalition with
FG, he faces never being minister again.