Eamon Ó Cuív has long been my favourite Fianna Fáil minister. (I know, I know: some people have favourite songs, or colours, or Sky Sports presenters. I have a pet Fianna Fáiler. It's weird.) Whenever he's asked a question, he answers the question. He doesn't sugarcoat his responses for people of more tender sensibilities, and doesn't care that when some folks hear him, they check their local crossroads for comely maidens performing Riverdance. He has no interest in being a faux-liberal in an increasingly liberal world. He wears his conservatism on his sleeve, and is not intimidated by his illustrious lineage. He's easy in his own skin, confident in his own beliefs. You don't have to agree with a word he says to appreciate the straightforward way he says it.
For all that, it was clear from an early stage that Dev from Coronation Street had as much chance of winning the Fianna Fáil leadership as the minister for Social Protection and whatever other responsibilities were landed on him after the elder lemmings of the cabinet jumped off the governmental cliff 10 days ago. Fianna Fáil – despite the opinion polls, the public anger, the decimated nation it has left behind – still sees itself as the catch-all party of power, which can appeal to people of every age, gender, ideology, class and religious belief.
Ó Cuív would have strengthened the rural Fianna Fáil vote and saved a few seats (which is why he came second in the leadership contest) but he would have been a disaster in those urban, middle-class areas where pronounced regional accents are equated with intellectual and cultural inferiority. Instead, the party gave us yet another leader wanting to be all things to all people – the former union official who's cross with the unions; the founder of the HSE who's impatient with his creation; the man who eschews personality politics but whose first initiative was to call for more personality contests between the leaders during the campaign; the man who doesn't have a whole lot to say sorry for but, in one of the most meaningless mea culpas since Tiger Woods apologised to his sponsors, says sorry anyway.
For most people, I suspect, it's all too little, all too late, but if Martin helps Fianna Fáil keep 25 or more seats next month, he'll be regarded as one of the big winners of election 2011. If the party wins fewer than 25 seats, people will blame his two predecessors. It's a comfortable enough position for a new leader to be in; in some ways, he's in a much less stressful position than the leaders of both Fine Gael and Labour, for whom expectations – amongst party members and the general public – are very high.
As are tensions between the opposition parties and within them. Enda Kenny's impersonation of the Scarlet Pimpernel over the last few weeks is no accident. Neither is his refusal to countenance a three-way debate with Martin and Eamon Gilmore. His party's strategists have clearly identified him as a potential liability, but their bigger problem will come if it looks (as it does to many people) as though he's running from the fight. Martin already has him on the backfoot on that issue.
Meanwhile, Joan Burton's eccentric performance on Vincent Browne's show the other night suggests that all is not hunky dory in the upper echelons of the Labour Party either. On top of that, politicians on both sides of the opposition divide have been bitching at each other for the last few weeks. Over the next few, they will have to prove they can work together in government.
So there are some avenues for success there for the new leader of Fianna Fáil, whose most potent weapon is undoubtedly himself. Most people have made up their minds, I think, that they will not vote Fianna Fáil, but some others are open to persuasion. Ultimately, that could make the difference between 20 Fianna Fáil seats and 30. And that is where Micheál Martin will be doing most of his work in the coming weeks.
After the new leader's promising start in charge, many in Fianna Fáil will be bemoaning their failure to make the big switch 12 months ago. No matter how energetic a man might feel, no matter how weak his opponents, there's only so much difference he can make in 30 days – the time between his election and the mooted date for polling day. Had Martin had a year in charge, we might be in for a more interesting election campaign, with a much less predictable result, than we are about to get.
Still, it's a lot more fascinating now than it was two weeks ago when Brian Cowen, whom some of you will remember, looked set to lead Fianna Fáil to electoral annihilation. The change in the narrative has nothing to do with policy, because this election – thanks to the loss of our economic sovereignty – will have little to do with issues, proposals and manifestos.
Whether people like it or not, the election will be all about personality. And Fianna Fáil suddenly seems to have found one.
Late late mockery of troubled guests is new low
One Friday afternoon last year, I got a phone call from a researcher on the Late Late Show asking me if I'd be interested in appearing on that night's programme. One of their guests was Joe Coleman, a Dublin man who believes that he's in regular communication with the Virgin Mary.
As I had written previously about Coleman, the Late Late wanted me to sit in the audience and take him to task for his ridiculous claims. I refused because I believe that people who think that they are on speaking terms with fictitious characters from the Bible are troubled and should not be subject to the kind of public humiliation and sneering which appearances on live television represent.
I was reminded of the Late Late's request last weekend, when Jim Corr, who believes amongst other lunacies that the US was behind the attack on the World Trade Centre, was wheeled out for our delectation.
People like Coleman and Corr play the role in modern life that bearded ladies and Siamese twins used to in 19th century freak shows.
It's a pity to see the Late Late Show stoop to such depths.