One of the secrets to political success is the ability to learn. Mistakes and errors are unavoidable but once you learn from them they make you stronger and more capable. Fianna Fail should take heed and learn a lesson from the Abortion dispute within its ranks over recent weeks.
Micheál Martin has not been a bad leader, he held a pretty empty hand and now the party is edging back up in the polls. That could be seen as success. The problem is that the pace of the FF climb is not exactly staggering and it is quite likely it is as much down to the strength of the FF organisation on the ground and the over promising of the current government as it is to any real action on Martin’s part.
FF is trying to recover and the size of that task should not be underestimated. It is phenomenal that we are even discussing it really, so give credit where it’s due. The problem is that FF needs to show a new side of itself to the public, it needs to show how it has learned. It talks a lot about ‘new politics’ but in reality it doesn’t look or act a whole lot differently.
During the presidential fiasco Martin almost made a complete mess of things by assuming that as leader he had absolute authority to formulate the position. What ‘new politics’ would have been was a leader who was willing to hold a debate within his party and to convince rather than coerce those around him of the merits of his position. He then proceeded to tell Gay Byrne he could have the nomination without reference to anyone. Now in the end FF got out of the mess but they should never have gotten into it.
Micheal Martin is safe as leader. There is nobody interested or capable of really challenging him. O’Cuiv might like the job but TDs know that they would be completely pigeon holed under such a leader and they are not going to do that. Nobody else has any hope. Martin can do a lot of things well and that is why he is safe. However, he is struggling to learn and that is a problem.
One can’t help but feel that sometimes in FF too many people watch too many old Haughey documentaries and talk about the shafting, the tough leadership, the loyalty demands and how he got his way. There seems to be a feeling that this outdated form of leadership is still the right way even though it’s utterly irrelevant in a modern context.
Like any big party Fianna Fail was divided on the Abortion issue. For the first time in years they at least had the luxury of not being in government. People across the country are moaning about the whip and party politics and so on. Equally people are much divided on the abortion issue. Many simply don’t see it as a political issue but something that is deeply personal. Many are conflicted and can see both sides of the argument equally well both in terms of the mother and the unborn child.
The idea of allowing a free vote was floated early. In fact it was floated in government circles first. Obviously this created an issue for the government and they said no and at that moment FF had a chance to make a virtue of their new politics. Instead they staggered and stalled again.
Let’s deal with some issues surrounding the free vote. First it was claimed this would mean FF could not make up its mind. Well we know they can’t, there is nothing wrong in that, why be so afraid of it, admit it and say ‘Of course we cant, this isn’t a normal everyday issue it’s a deeply moral issue’.
Then they claim that there will be other moral issues. No, let’s face it we know why abortion is such a big issue the world over. It’s not like divorce where people can say; just leave it up to others. When talking to people on abortion you rarely get anywhere because it’s about life and death, no just money, economics, or personal choice. One side accuses you of condemning women to death; the other side accuses you of condemning children to death. In any party you agree to sign up to a certain amount of majority rule. You fight your case on a policy initiative and sometimes you lose and have to go against what you want, but it’s worth it because you know you will win on something else and politics is negotiation. However, nobody ever signs up to be forced to vote life or death over another human being. You simply cannot make anyone do that. The pro life wing of FF might have seen a gap in the market but to force TDs who believe that women might actually die as a result of this to vote that way would be ridiculous. Equally the pro choice element of the party has no right to coerce any individual who believes a foetus to be a human being to vote against that belief and allow for it to be killed.
Micheal Martin should have spotted this a mile off. There was no way he was going to force people against their will. He might have had some hope if they were in government and there was a threat of it falling, he might have had some hope if the party felt the onus was on them to do something. In opposition you do not have that onus and sometimes its right to simply let debate flow.
Would there be other issues? Would there be a precedent for free votes? That’s all nonsense. TDs know the value of the whip and the value of sticking together they are not going to seek free votes on everything and anything.
A free vote was the sensible option for FF. TDs must go with their own conscience and indeed with their own constituency on this matter, it is a luxury opposition affords them. The problem now is that if they had had the foresight to realise it then this could have been turned into a positive argument, a stance of new politics. Jim Gibbons an FF junior minister once voted against the government on a family planning bill, no action was taken, no sacking and no loss of the whip. It happens; it’s the leader’s reaction that makes the whip so fearsome.
Instead of seeing the inevitable divide and accepting it and trying to make a positive out of it, FF now finds it must face questions of why the leader lost this argument. Micheal Martin should never have been so foolish as to get himself cornered like that. His attempts to brand the new legislation as ‘pro life’ were simply disastrous. He and FF put enormous work into the 2002 referendum, now he was changing position. Suddenly taking suicide out of the equation didn’t matter. This led to two questions, firstly, why did it matter in 2002 then? Why did FF campaign almost as a lone voice on that issue?
We know the referendum was narrowly defeated. Was this why FF took a different stance now? If so is that not just populism? We believed something very strongly then but as it wont get sufficient public support we now no longer believe it. Maybe it was to be spun as acceptance of the peoples will even if it wasn’t what FF had wanted? That can’t work either, for if that was the case why did they not legislate after the referendum failed, why wait a decade until someone else did it?
The truth is FF is split. It is split three ways. There are those who are pro-life and strongly so and have a serious issue with this bill. There are those who are pro-choice who think this matter must be dealt with now and cannot be hidden from. Then there are those who are only concerned with how it looks for the party, what image it conveys, what will make us look hip, cool and popular? Which grouping could we side with for most effect?
Agreement was never going to be forthcoming; a free vote was the only real option open to FF. It wasn’t ideal but if they had the foresight it could be seen as somewhat virtuous. Unfortunately the stalling and attempts to be seen as strong and in command have just tied their shoelaces together and made them appear to be staggering about.