A month or two after the 2011 general election I met with Micheál Martin. He was talking to everybody and anybody about Fianna Fail and what the future held for them. At that meeting I outlined two scenarios for his party. The first was a dramatic and sweeping change, brutally implemented, requiring steady nerves and much leadership. It was a strategy designed to use the still massive FF organisation and would see big changes in how political parties distribute power and would be fraught with rows and arguments. The advantage was that if it was successful it could return FF to the pinnacle of Irish politics in a relatively short period of time and possibly change how political parties worked for a long time to come. The downside was that if the leadership was not there or if the strategy failed, FF could be left worse than they were and might even disintegrate. The higher the stakes the bigger the prize if you win.
The second strategy was to ensure FF survival. This was the approach of steady caution. Taking time, discussing and not doing anything too dramatic. Some quick window dressing and nice speeches and let time do its work. The advantage of this was that it would ensure FF survival probably for at least 25/30 years. The downside was that with this approach FF would never regain its dominance of Irish politics, It could survive but it would spend the rest of it existence fighting with other growing parties, juggling the also ran tag, and making up numbers. Over time it would shed some of that big organisation as not ‘being necessary to modern politics’. Eventually it might even be subsumed into another party or disappear gradually, but not now. Its current existence would be assured.
From what I knew of the FF grassroots, back in the day, I was convinced they would want option 1. They would rather go down swinging with flames all about rather than be condemned to some political half life that they use to pity other parties for. Personally, I also felt it was a better approach because I despair of how all Irish political parties that once could have taught the world how to organise have slipped into a pattern of aping British and American politics and become nothing more than boring marketing strategies.
Anyway, I think everyone can see the route FF took. They are still with us. Have they dealt with the problems of the past or the economic accusations? Absolutely not. They think they have and want to move on but it’s just not true. Dealing with it means apportioning responsibility, identifying exact decisions and errors, and facing up to personal failings. That means rows. It means hurting people. They don’t feel strong enough to do that so they avoid any split by just not talking about it.
I also said publicly at the time that the problem with the cautious approach and the advice FF was taking was that Martin was keeping things upbeat while he was touring the grassroots and energising them. This in time helped to give FF a little mild poll boost. But quite clearly the same advisers would eventually tell FF to ‘stop navel gazing’ and get back out there. Martin duly obliged right on schedule. The very weakness so many predicted was then laid bare. If Martin was not touring the grassroots anymore, energising them, focusing them and promising new reforms, then who was? Who replaced Martin when he turned back to his job as a public figure? Amazingly nothing had changed internally except a cut in staff numbers due to resources. The only change that was much heralded was a shift to one member one vote. This was welcome but it had nothing to do with where FF went wrong. Their old internal voting system was not the issue. Bad decisions, too much concentration of power, and inflexibility at the top was. Did the rules for the parliamentary party change? No. Did the roles and responsibilities of its internal staff change? Only on the surface. The cautious approach demands continuity and ensuring that things don’t get to alien at stressful times. Therefore widespread change in how FF works was not possible. Survival is the name of the game.
FF now remains stagnant. It still has a decision to make about whether to continue on this current course or try to change. Micheal Martin has yet another Ard Fheis were people will be watching for signals. The only question that is really left to answer is whether anything of its old self remains within FF. Whether anyone has the courage to take of the swim rings and go for it. New policies are often hard to find for small parties, mostly because they lack the numbers. Right now FF is in that position. A parliamentary party and a few researchers that can fit into a room will only be able to come up with a limited amount of policy. Where FF has an advantage is that it still has a big organisation if only it knew what to do with it. Put simply if you want to know how to improve social welfare payments one of the best experts you can talk to is someone on a dole queue. If you want tax strategies or policies for business talk to people involved. FF has these within its ranks, but it has no real mechanism for them to assist with policy formulation. The inner circles continue, those in the know can influence but those who are not, sit on their hands waiting for something to do.
This weekend’s Ard Fheis will debate a lot of policy but most of it will be irrelevant to FF or its future. Once the event is over normal service resumes. The local and European elections will at least give members something to do. FF must try to hold what it has in these elections and on a very good day hope for a slight increase. The real test is after that. How quickly can FF find new candidates? It needs to identify at least 5 people that are ‘cabinet ready’ after these elections. People capable of going on TV without being star struck. People capable of leadership, people capable of arguing with a government minister at full tilt. The harsh reality is that the majority of this FF frontbench would not get a sniff at such a position back in the FF heyday. Indeed, despite all the fault and blame and venom that could be directed at members of the last cabinet it’s hard not to imagine that if the FF front bench today contained Micheal Martin, Brian Lenihan, Brian Cowen, Dermot Ahern, Noel Dempsey, Mary Hanafin and a few others it would still make a more impressive sight that what they have. Yes they could be blamed for all that went wrong but let’s face it FF still has to answer that anyway and if those figures were there such questions would be unavoidable and force their hand.
Ever since the 2011 general election Fianna Fail has one question to ask itself. What kind of future does it want? Ambition and desire shape actions. Increasingly grassroots are tiring of what they see as a return to normal business. Perhaps the party is happy where it is. Perhaps it will finally make a move to try regain ground. Whatever happens it needs to make up its mind. Sinn Fein may be struggling to advance too but it will not always be so. The government may not always have the bleak days ahead that it has had in the last few years. FF needs to stop hoping that others do stuff wrong and instead focus on themselves.