Micheál Martin has been Fianna Fáil leader since January 2011, after being elected in a leadership race, replacing outgoing Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, who oversaw a government, which lost control of its finances.
Martin had a tough task as leader to rebuild the party, as it lost 58 seats in a single election, as it won 20 seats in the 2011 general election, compared to 78, in the 2007 general election.
It was reduced to 19 TDs as former Minister of Finance, Brian Lenihan, lost his battle to pancreatic cancer in the summer of 2011.
In the first local elections as leader, Martin boosted Fianna Fáil’s total number of seats in local authorities, in the 2014 local elections, as it won 267 seats, a net increase of 49 seats.
In the first general election as leader, Fianna Fáil’s seats increased from 21 seats to 44 seats. Following the 2016 general election, after long negotiations, Fianna Fáil agreed to form a confidence and supply arrangement with Fine Gael which ensured that a government could be formed with some TDs from the Independent Alliance.
However, it meant that many voters did not perceive Fianna Fáil to be an opposition party. At the end of 2018, it renewed this confidence and supply arrangement in the wake of the enormous impact that Brexit could potentially have had on the country.
It was decided that a general election would take place on the 8th of February 2020. Fianna Fáil were seen to be favourites to win the most seats in the election at the start of the campaign and won 38 seats while Sinn Féin won a record 37 seats and Fine Gael won 35 seats.
Micheál Martin ended up forming a government with Fine Gael and the Green Party in June 2020, and would become Taoiseach, which would operate on a rotating basis. In December 2022, Leo Varadkar will become Taoiseach once again.
There is an expectation that Micheál Martin will move on to become Tánaiste. Indications are that he will now become Tánaiste in December 2022 and possibly lead Fianna Fáil into the next general election.
Who are the possible contenders to replace him in the near future?
Michael McGrath is one of the main contenders to replace Micheál Martin as Fianna Fáil leader. He was first elected, as a TD for Cork South Central in the 2007 general election and in opposition, after the 2011 general election, was the party’s Public Expenditure and Reform Spokesman, but also became Finance Spokesperson after the death of Brian Lenihan.
He topped the poll in the 2016 general election and retained his seat in the 2020 general election, taking the final seat in Cork South Central. Following the endorsement of the Programmes for Government, he became Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. Meanwhile, he is due to become Minister of Finance as the role rotates towards the end of 2022.
Assessment – Michael McGrath is one of the main favourites to succeed Micheál Martin as Fianna Fáil leader. A fellow running mate in the constituency, McGrath has become a well established TD and Minister. McGrath is well placed to become the next leader of Fianna Fáil, if he wishes to run for the post.
Jim O’Callaghan is another contender for the leadership. He was first elected as a councillor in the 2009 local elections and was elected as a TD for Dublin Bay South in the 2016 general election. During the 32nd Dáil, he was Fianna Fáil’s Justice Spokesman. He scrapped through to retain his seat in the 2020 general election.
He is seen as a staunch opponent of Micheál Martin and rejected a junior ministerial role in the latest government, because he was not given a senior ministerial role. He is currently the director of elections for the campaign of Deirdre Conroy in the Dublin Bay South by-election, whose campaign is not going well.
Assessment – Jim O’Callaghan’s chances of leading Fianna Fáil soon are diminishing. If his chances of leading Fianna Fáil are based on his leadership as director of elections for the Dublin Bay South by-election, then his chances are rapidly decreasing. Whether he is popular with the membership, and a charismatic figure, it remains to be seen.
Stephen Donnelly is another contender. He was first elected as an Independent TD in the 2011 general election and ran a vociferous campaign against the EU/IMF bailout.
In 2015, he was a co-founder of the Social Democrats but left the party in September 2016 and joined Fianna Fáil.
He was the party’s Spokesman on Brexit. In a frontbench reshuffle, he was appointed the party’s Spokesperson on Health. He was re-elected to Dáil Éireann in the 2020 general election. In the formation of the government, he was appointed as Health Minister.
Assessment – Stephen Donnelly’s chances of leading Fianna Fáil are slim but certainly achievable. However, his first year as Health Minister has been far from successful and seems to be unpopular with figures in the party, particularly the backbenchers.
Norma is another outside candidate for the leadership of Fianna Fáil. She was first elected as a councillor in 1994 for Kerry County Council. She was also a teacher, before being elected as a TD. Having failed numerous times to become a TD, Foley was elected in the 2020 general election, winning the final seat in the Kerry constituency.
She was appointed as Education Minister in government formation and oversaw a difficult first year as a Minister. She oversaw the full return of schools in 2021 but at the same time, stood over the tightest class sizes in the EU and a chaotic alternative Leaving Cert of predicted grades. Despite this, she appears to be popular in the party.
Assessment – Norma Foley has an outside chance of becoming next Fianna Fáil leader. She is inexperienced as she is only a TD since 2020 but still became Education Minister. If elected, it would be a landmark moment for the Fianna Fáil party as she would become their first female leader.
It appears that Michael McGrath is the favourite to become the next Fianna Fáil leader. Other candidates, not discussed include Darragh O’Brien who certainly has a measurable chance.
He oversaw a chaotic first year as Housing Minister and faced opposition to the Shared Equity Scheme and so-called cuckoo funds competing with first time buyers.
There does not appear to be a credible candidate who wants to become leader, which is worrying for the party.