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Saturday 30 August 2014

Fionnan Sheahan: FF in dire need of reform - no matter who is leader

Published 18/01/2011 | 05:00

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Outside the meeting room, the rest of the country was debating whether Brian Cowen was potentially "dru-nk or hungover" during an interview.

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But inside the Ardilaun Hotel at the end of their think-in last September, Fianna Fail TDs and senators were being briefed on the party's masterplan to fightback ahead of the 2012 General Election.

The party's internal research was saying Fine Gael and the Labour Party had not closed the deal and a large chunk of voters lost since the last general election could still be won back

Fianna Fail strategists had drawn up an 18-month campaign based around getting back to the basics of TDs being out to "drop and knock" -- dropping leaflets and knocking on doors.

Party headquarters had drawn up templates for seven specific leaflets, detailing what the Government was doing in the areas of jobs, cancer strategy, crime, education, assistance with mortgage arrears, agriculture and jobs support.

Fianna Fail general secretary Sean Dorgan outlined the extra supports that party headquarters would be putting in place.

Defence Minister Tony Killeen gave a briefing on policy development for the general election manifesto, following a series of meetings the party held over the summer.

Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern's favourite political consultant, Peter McDonagh, was back working for Mr Cowen.

Mr McDonagh, who is based in Prague and Dublin, had also looked at the performance of the British Labour Party in the general election.

He tracked how the Conservative Party's strong lead of 10 points was whittled down during the course of the campaign and how Labour mobilised local activists dropping leaflets door-to-door and focused on marginal candidates.

The parliamentary party was told the selection conventions for general election candidates would be held by late spring or early summer of 2011 -- giving new candidates a full year to bed in and raise their profile.

The general conclusion of the briefing was the situation was not as bad as portrayed.

But the brave new dawn for Fianna Fail was never to happen. Only four months later, it now seems like a world away.

The notion of banking everything on a 2012 General Election appears to have been naive in the extreme.

Mr Cowen's infamous singing and drinking session sparked a downward spiral for Fianna Fail from which it has shown no signs of recovery.

Once the IMF and EU rolled into town, the party hit rock bottom and morale died off.

The party is currently on 14pc in the latest opinion polls, with leading figures, such as Micheal Martin, criticising a lack of organisation and strategy heading into a general election campaign.

"There is very little evidence of a vibrant, vigorous electoral machine being put in place," he said last night.

Willie O'Dea spoke of the party facing an "unacceptably high risk of electoral annihilation".

Mr Cowen has been criticised for allowing the party to sleepwalk into a general election.

Fianna Fail still has to select its candidates in 17 constituencies for the forthcoming general election. And it's not just a straightforward case of scheduling the selection conventions.

Rocked by retirements, uncertain about who is actually running, and shadowed by doubts over how many candidates to put up in constituencies, Fianna Fail has an enormous difficulty in sorting out its ticket.

By the end of the month, the party expects to have the vast majority of its candidates selected -- but polling day is approaching fast.

When he was elected as leader of the party, Mr Cowen said he was committed to reforming the party -- but little has happened to back up this claim.

He has commissioned reports. Mr Dorgan conducted a report on the state of the organisation for the Taoiseach in 2008.

Former cabinet minister Gerry Collins and former junior minister Chris Flood headed a committee drafting a report for Mr Cowen on the party organisation in 2009.

The report research found the vast majority of Fianna Fail's local organisation units in Dublin are inactive and exist by name only.

After being hammered in the local elections, Mr Cowen was said to be planning a revamp of the party organisation in the main cities before the next general election.

The first phase of the party's reorganisation will focus on Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford -- where the local elections were particularly bad.

But the report is now gathering dust in party headquarters.

To be fair to the Taoiseach, he has had to deal with an unprecedented tsunami of economic, banking and financial crises. However, his attitude has not helped matters.

Mr Cowen's disregard for communications saw him leave the role of the party's chief press officer empty for six months up until last September.

The manner in which the party handled the spate of resignations left a great deal to be desired.

The ridiculous spin from Fianna Fail hacks that talk of an exodus of resignations was greatly exaggerated just made it worse when the tally of retiring TDs continued to rise and may not be finished yet.

And Mr Cowen didn't show any sign of caring about the damage to morale the resignations were causing.

Mr Martin has good intentions and talks a good game about reforming the party.

But the clock is now ticking down.

At the very least, the leader of the party -- be it Mr Martin or Mr Cowen -- desperately needs to re-energise the party grassroots in the hope of tapping its core support.

In this regard, Mr Martin appears to have awoken Mr Cowen from his slumber -- for this week, anyway.

Regardless of who leads the party into the forthcoming general election, Fianna Fail's prospects are poor and it will take more than two months to reverse the rot.

Irish Independent

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