Martin survives Cavan think-in unscathed
Local TDs and Senators have their say
‘It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye’. In this case, what needed finding at the Fianna Fail ‘think-in’ at the Slieve Russell Hotel last week, ahead of the new Dáil term, was ‘Identity’ with a capital beginning.
Much of the early going was jovial enough. Chatter interfused the previous night’s event, when hundreds turned out in delight to welcome Solheim Cup winner Leona Maguire home. “Maybe we should make her Taoiseach,” ushered one TD, speaking in hushed tones as the Taoiseach proper, Micheál Martin, appeared within the opulence of the Cranaghan Suite. “If we got half the reception she got on the news, we’d be doing alright next election.”
Among the crowds that did attended were around 50 mica-affected homeowners protesting to pressure the government for 100% redress (see property); while others representing the plight of Irish language schools in the Gaeltacht were also in full voice outside the main gates.
The local SOS (Save our Schools) committees were also determined to make themselves heard, protesting the proposed merger of two West Cavan secondary schools.
When Deputy Martin did address media, in an organised doorstep, first for discussion were the findings of the Sean Fleming authored report focusing on recent poor electoral performances.
The largest survey undertaken by a political party in Ireland to date was published ahead of the parliamentary party meeting- “warts and all”- a move some considered brave, others foolhardy.
One critique that emerged was how the party unwaveringly supported the confidence-and-supply agreement with Fine Gael, and when the ballot boxes next arrive, how Fianna Fáil intends to differentiate itself from their partners in government.
One other alarming outcome was how the majority of current party members under the age of 65 years struggle to identity with what Fianna Fáil stands for today.
These issues aren’t new however. For decades stalwarts have scratched their heads as to why young people don’t vote like their parents once did.
Most recently the party’s inability to gain traction was shown in the dire result received in the Dublin Bay South by-election in July, brought about by the resignation of Fine Gael’s Eoghan Murphy, and eventually won by Labour’s Ivana Bacik. The immediate post-mortem drilled into a lack of strong candidature.
But it is as widely accepted that the political scene in Ireland is far more fragmented that ever before.
Senator Diarmuid Wilson, nephew of the late John Wilson TD, and former Minister and Tánaiste, feels a process of renewal, and the need to reconnect with the party’s grassroots, simply hasn’t happened to the extent it should have. Those same echoes have been shared by the Fianna Fail’s legacy holders, the likes of Bertie Ahern, Conor Lenihan, son of former Tánaiste and Minister Brian Lenihan.
“The grassroots of Fianna Fail feel they are being left behind. That’s the reality of the situation,” Sen Wilson told The Anglo-Celt. “If politicians are genuine about their business, the object is to represent the country as whole and the people who put them there. If you can’t have mature discussion in relation to difficulties, that are not only perceived, but are a reality, and without having factions emerge after it, then you’re going nowhere,” he mused.
Chair of the Parliamentary Party, Brendan Smith was confident Fianna Fáil will emerge stronger than before from their time in Cavan. It was the third time the party has met at the Slieve Russell since the late 90s - a record unmatched anywhere else in the county.
Though effectively an analogue device in a fast evolving digital age, he maintained such open inter-personal forum as “essential”.
Robbie Gallagher agreed, the Monaghan Senator believing it “natural” that membership, elected or otherwise, will have complaints and these should be aired as openly as possible.
“It’s the very nature of politics to inspire debate,” he said.
Back to business
Pent-up demand, is how Niamh Smyth characterised the sense prevailing into the two-day, talking-shop. There hadn’t been such a sit-down with party leadership since before Covid.
“We lost good people [in the 2020 General Election], seven very valuable colleagues,” reflected Deputy Smyth. “There is only so much business can be done on Zoom.”
The notion of “niceties” would be set aside in favour of “robust” conversation, promised the Taoiseach. “The important thing is we can take something from this, come out united, have a plan, and to rebuild and refocus for the future,” said Deputy Smyth.
While “not ideal”, Deputy Martin had told media during the doorstep that the country as a whole had done “well” out of the controversial confidence-and-supply agreement with Fine Gael.
He withdrew from answering fully whether the party would consider entering a shared government scenario again, only to say: “We will assess the situation at the end of this term in government, the Parliamentary Party will assess it, and we’ll make decisions at that time, based on experience, based on the issues that face society at that time.”
Against his usual stoic demeanour, Deputy Martin even allowed media glimpse his unaccustomed humorous side - the one he keeps firmly tucked for special occasions behind his rows of charcoal grey, dark navy blue, and [to quote Fr Ted] ‘very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very dark blue’ suits.
With a knowing smile, and a somewhat weary nod, when prodded about murmurings of a potential coup to oust him, the Taoiseach replied how he had rarely, if ever, witnessed unanimity within the parliamentary party meetings across a range of issues, including who was leader of Fianna Fáil. “That’s not news,” he brushed away.
Deputy Martin was similarly dismissive about reports that 15 party TDs appear primed to back a motion of no confidence in his leadership. The list, reportedly doing the rounds since early summer, remains a vital four short of the necessary 19 to force upheaval.
The Taoiseach himself indicated, when pushed, that some of those listed were as “surprised” as he was to see their names penned.
To quote Omar Little, characterised by the recently deceased Michael K. Williams in the hit TV show The Wire: ‘You come at the king, you best not miss.’
But the truth facing Deputy Martin, is despite his best efforts, that he finds himself engaged in a proverbial problem-solving game of ‘Whack-a-Mole’, eliminating one grub only to spot two or more pop up on the horizon, grinning with malicious intent.
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson’s comments on the Northern Ireland Protocol, he admitted, risked creating “new challenges”, and when prompted, said the latest suspected murder-suicide in Co Kerry means Ireland can no longer ignore such occurrences, indicating an openness to changing current gun laws.
“I don’t want to pre-empt what happened here. But we can’t ignore events of this kind,” he said of the Lixnaw incident.
It had been hoped the think-in’s heavy listening could be bore out in a single day. But some attendees spoke longer than others. Thursday’s planned dinner lasted less than an hour, before Deputy Smith, hurried all back to keep the conflab going.
Ultimately, it was the same dissenting names that cropped up in their criticisms of Deputy Martin which, we’re told, he took squarely on the chin.
To the Taoiseach’s great comfort, the middle ground, the heartbed of his support, held firm.
Friday heard presentations on range of topics from housing to Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol, the impact of Covid on citizens and the economy, and a forward look to Budget 2022.
It came a sort of anti-climax. Much had been made of the internal report, not to mention the impending handover of the reigns of power to Fine Gael.
But with such antagonisms diffused, and overarching tensions abated for now, Deputy Martin exited happiest - from stage left - a metaphor he perhaps hopes does not come to pass in the most literal of ways anytime soon.