Willie Kealy: Our only hope of policy change lies in a reinvigorated Fianna Fail
There is still a spark in the party that was beaten into the ground 20 months ago
A lot of people are wondering what to do with Fianna Fail right now. Not the least of them is Micheal Martin. But he shares this conundrum with others, a significant number of whom wish it would just disappear off the political landscape.
But political parties rarely die dramatically. They tend to fade away or merge with a bigger entity or be subsumed.
What happened to Fianna Fail at the last election was pretty dramatic, and it survived. Now the latest opinion poll results show that it is not in danger of going quietly either.
It would suit several constituencies if Fianna Fail would just disappear. It would suit the present Government which could then have total domination without question. It would suit those who would like to see a clear field for a new party. Mostly it would suit those who don't really care that our democracy is in a pretty perilous state now, with a dominant Government (dominant at home, subservient abroad) a weak opposition, and an unprecedented threat to a free media, while the bulk of the population are pushed towards the margins.
Last week Fianna Fail got a rating of 26 per cent in an opinion poll carried out for the ' Sunday Times'. Martin said that he is not going to get carried away with that result. In the general election they got 18 per cent, but that still amounted, as Martin pointed out to Vincent Browne, to 400,000 votes. That's 400,000 men and women who went out to vote and it's more than the entire staff of the public service combined.
Browne concentrated in his interview with Martin almost exclusively on telling Martin how corrupt Fianna Fail has been in the past. The message was clear. Why don't you just f**k off and die. Hardly constructive.
Last March, Martin said at his party's Ard Fheis: "We were in government and we should have acted differently. We made mistakes. We got things wrong. And we are sorry for that." That was a pretty comprehensive mea culpa. So what happened next. Did forgiveness follow? It seems not. Not from certain quarters anyway. Do Fianna Fail deserve to be forgiven for their past sins? Well, they deserve it at least as much as the errant bankers for whom John Bruton made a special plea of forgiveness. And the bankers haven't even said they are sorry.
But there is another reason why we need to put the past of Fianna Fail behind us and look to the future. It is in our own interest. It is in the interest of the coping classes – the middle class employed and the unemployed (those genuine unemployed who want to work and are not milking the social welfare system), the elderly retired of modest means, and the disabled. Because right now they have no one to speak for them except, it seems, Fianna Fail. Who else is there? From Fine Gael they have received a slap in the face. Labour has turned its back on them. And Sinn Fein patronises them with platitudes.
But if we are to start seeing Fianna Fail in a new light, we have to compromise. Undoubtedly Fianna Fail has changed – not just with the forced disappearance of most of the tired old faces of the Cowen and Ahern years. One of the most significant adjustments for the party – and all parties – but particularly the Fianna Fail party, has been to learn to survive without large corporate donations. That has been a character-altering change. They have also been forced to think seriously about policy issues because the usual stock in trade of an opposition – criticise everything the Government does for its own sake – has been appropriated by Sinn Fein. We could have hoped that this would have led to a radicalisation of thinking within the party, but that was probably expecting too much, at least for now. The pre-Budget submission of the party's Finance spokesman, Michael McGrath, last week, was a good start however. His big idea was to change the priorities laid down by the Government which plans two-thirds cuts and one-third tax increases. McGrath suggested this should be 50:50, while not contesting the need to raise a total of €3.5bn.
Yes, that does mean more taxation, but it also gives more scope to lay off the downtrodden. It is not the kind of scalpel approach that might have been more effective, but it's a start – a framework.
But on the question of taxation there is some finesse. And it is vital. Because it leans towards income tax and away from coalition measures like the property tax. This is a recognition that tax should be assessed on an ability to pay. If you earn it you pay tax on it. And the Fianna Fail scheme is aimed at those earning €100,000 or more. With the property tax you pay it because you happen to live in a house, irrespective of your ability to pay. When you reach retirement and have to live on a modest pension, the property tax continues to pursue you. In fact it is with you to the grave. At its introduction it may look modest enough, but in other jurisdictions where it has been standard for years, it is now regarded as one of the old reliables, so much so that property taxes can exceed the repayment cost of a mortgage!
As we know, not all old people are poor. We know some of them have extremely handsome pensions. Fianna Fail plans to cut higher pension payments to retired public servants earning over €75,000. And they have plans to cut the allowances for civil servants, something Brendan Howlin is clearly terrified of tackling. They also want to see the planned redundancy scheme in the public service speeded up.
This latter proposal is a bit of a cop-out, because it means that Fianna Fail is still too cautious when it comes to tackling the Croke Park Agreement. They do not seek any cut to public service pay. In fact they do not say anything about the Croke Park Agreement at all, either in terms of renegotiation or setting the parameters for any new agreement.
The balance to increased taxation (including a three per cent increase in the USC) which is aimed at raising €1.4bn, is a €90m package to allow some rowing back on the present Government's cuts to third level student grants, guidance teachers, home help hours and the Deis rural school scheme. And they want to lift the ban on garda recruitment.
All of this might sound a bit like Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle Dee and, let's face it, nobody is saying it is revolutionary or even radical. There is no plan here to withhold payments on debts we believe we do not owe. There is nothing to tackle the banks' unwilling to lend to small business or to help struggling home owners. There is some talk about creating a better climate for employers to hire workers, but there is no brave capital spending programme to maintain our schools and hospitals and immediately create some employment, for example. Nor does Fianna Fail question the absolutely imperative nature of the €3.5bn target – and thus there is no direct challenge to the extreme austerity imposed on us from outside.
But within the confines of our little parliamentary democracy or what's left of it, it's a start. It's a sign that there may yet be some spark left in a Fianna Fail that was beaten into the ground only 20 months ago. And if that can be fanned in to a flame to keep alive the necessary questioning spirit of constructive dissent, we will be the better for it.
But as I said earlier, this does require some compromise on our part too. I know there are people who are dreaming of a clean break with the past and the establishment of a new party – but not yet. Well, democracy can't wait. And hoping for a saviour to emerge at some stage in the future is not really an option any more. We have to work with what we have. With Fianna Fail, we have a political party structure that though severely battered, endures and that, on its worst day was able to secure the votes of 400,000 people. For those who have grown weary of waiting for this Government to show that it intends to do anything that it promised, the only real hope of change lies in a renewed and reinvigorated Fianna Fail party.
The compromise? There is no sign that for the foreseeable future, Fianna Fail will be led by anyone other than Micheal Martin.