Biding his time: Micheál Martin is likely to succeed Brian Cowen as party leader in 2011

A WEEK is not a long time in politics, if you are Micheál Martin. The Minister for Foreign Affairs is a patient man and, even though he is everybody's favourite to become the next leader of Fianna Fáil, he is prepared to bide his time until the opportunity arises, most likely after the election in the spring.

Just eight days ago, Martin publicly threw his hat into the ring to become the next leader of Fianna Fáil.

Speaking to Rachel English on RTÉ's Saturday View programme, 50-year-old Martin said, "There are many people within the party who, if the situation arose, would be interested in the leadership - and I would be one of those."

If those comments raised eyebrows, then Martin's next appearance on RTÉ certainly set tongues wagging. On Monday night he appeared on the The Frontline TV programme entitled 'Fianna Fáil's darkest hour'. Fianna Fáilers have been highly critical of that programme for some time. Some of them have even labelled it "Liveline with pictures" and "reland's Jeremy Kyle show" as they view it as a weekly ambush where members of the audience let loose on the Fianna Fáil minister sitting in front of them.

But Monday's programme was different. It was so different that hacks from other political parties claimed it was a "Fianna Fáil love-in".

While viewers may differ over the programme, few could disagree that Martin's performance was particularly strong. Unlike other Cabinet ministers who have been cannon fodder for public anger on a Monday night, Martin showed an ability to lend a listening ear to an audience that was mainly made up of people who are irate over what Fianna Fáil has become.

When tackled over his party's culpability for the economic morass in which the country now finds itself, Martin replied: "We made mistakes. We spent too much in terms of public expenditure and we narrowed our tax base too much. We have to learn to be up front with people and say that mistakes were made."

Later in the programme, Pat Kenny asked a number of key questions about Martin's views on Taoiseach Brian Cowen and Martin's future ambitions.

On Cowen, Martin said: "Of all the people I have served under, I regard Brian Cowen as a very decent, honest and committed person."

Praise for Cowen

He commended the way Cowen had "knuckled down" in the last few years to deal with "huge and enormous" issues. But he added: "He doesn't engage in the spin-doctoring type thing. He doesn't believe in the old adage that perception is reality. He actually believes that reality is reality.

"And in a modern, media-dominated world, where the interaction between media and politics is critical, he hasn't concentrated on that side of the situation."

Referring to his declaration of interest in the leadership two days previously, Martin said: "I would have told a lie if I said I did not want to lead the Fianna Fáil party."

He also said that he believed Cowen will lead Fianna Fáil into the next general election. "That's what he wants to do and I believe he will. He has said to the cabinet and the parliamentary party that the three critical issues facing us in these times are obviously the IMF/ECB [deal], the four-year plan and the budget. And he wants to deliver that."

Given that that the IMF/EU deal and the four-year plan had already been taken care of and the budget was looking safe by Monday night, it could be deduced that Cowen had all but dealt with the "three critical issues" and that the door was now open for a challenge to his leadership.

There had been increased speculation in recent weeks that Cowen will not lead his party into the election. The conventional wisdom suggested that, once the budget was out of the way, it would be open season within Fianna Fáil as the backbench knives came out for Cowen. But a series of strong performances in the Dáil chamber and in the media over the last seven days has reminded people that the seemingly lethargic leader we have all come to know and deride since 2008 is actually the same person who grabbed Fianna Fáil's 2007 general election campaign by the horns and was instrumental in snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

There for the taking

In the last few days the rumblings about Cowen's leadership have been muted. The party's TDs and senators agreed at Thursday's parliamentary party meeting that he should lead them into the next general election.

So talk of Martin taking over the leadership has abated, for now. It is inevitable that Fianna Fáil will be on the opposition benches after the election and it is at that point that Martin will become leader and be given five years to try and rebuild a party on its knees. Martin will effectively be given the task that Enda Kenny fulfilled in Fine Gael after its disastrous 2002 general election when he travelled the country rebuilding the party from the grassroots upwards.

"The leadership is there for Micheál if he wants it. Brian Lenihan has been badly damaged in the last few weeks so Micheál will probably take over after the election. Some people in the party even believe he has a deal done with Cowen along those lines and he will stand uncontested for the leadership when it does come up," said one Fianna Fáil insider.

Martin and his wife Mary suffered a terrible personal tragedy in October when their seven-year-old daughter Leana died. After this tragedy nobody was sure if Martin would have any appetite for leadership but he appears to be coping well in what must be the most trying circumstances.

A week ago it looked as if Cowen would not lead Fianna Fáil into the election, but a series of strong performances saw him resurrected. Two opinion polls are expected within the next seven days and they could well put Cowen back in the firing line and rekindle rumours about Martin.

Either way, Martin appears to be happy to bide his time. He is patient and the leadership appears to be his if he wants it.