News John Drennan

Friday 22 August 2014

John Drennan: Fianna Fail must be brave and carefully examine its wounds

As this unloved Government appears to defy the laws of gravity, the Opposition is sinking in polls

John Drennan

Published 08/12/2013 | 02:30

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SAYING SORRY IS NOT ENOUGH: Micheal Martin

IT IS A measure of the damaged psyche of the once all-powerful Fianna Fail party that it did not quite know whether to be embarrassed or delighted by its capture of Colm Keaveney.

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A different Fianna Fail would have treated the defection as its due and moved on with sanguine indifference even if the adopted fledgling was falling rather than flying.

Now, however, like the classic victim of bullying, FF even treats displays of affection with deep suspicion.

On this occasion, though, the party might be wise to be cautious for one swallow, no matter how exotic its feathers, does not a summer make.

And as Fianna Fail continues to shiver in the political permafrost created by its destruction of the State, this is a party that has a long journey to go to enjoy the sunshine of the electorate's affection.

Instead the party remains frozen in the sort of climate zone in which Fine Gael was shivering after 2002. Indeed, it might even remember that that electoral rout was coldly summarised by the chuckle of one of the then triumphant FF/PD administration that the electorate had "voted the opposition out of office".

Now, ironically, a decade later, the voters appear to be intent on inflicting a similar indignity on Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein.

This is all the more surprising, for while ministers may find this difficult to comprehend – and often take it far too personally – this is an unloved Government.

However, against all the laws of political gravity, the more disliked the Coalition becomes, the lower the Opposition sinks in the polls.

Given the difficulties it is experiencing, one can understand why Sinn Fein is residing in the land of "we are where we are".

The real puzzle though is why, as austerity bites ever harder, the people are turning away in ever gathering swathes from Fianna Fail.

By mid-summer this year, it appeared a party that was at 29 per cent in the polls was finally nudging towards political respectability. Indeed, it was expected that yet another Budget which, despite the nice way it was dressed, was still of the austerity queen variant, a humiliating defeat for Enda 'the autocrat' on the Seanad and an escalating health crisis might bring FF over the 30 per cent threshold.

Then the electorate swished its collective tail in the disdainful manner of a salmon that, having spotted a flaw in the carefully presented bait, turns away.

Micheal Martin, of course, is still railing energetically about medical cards and Sinn Fein, but FF appears to be as becalmed as FG in the dead years of 2003 and 2004 under the benevolent reign of Bertie.

In trying to understand what has gone wrong in the 'Micheal Martin respectability project', one key factor may be that FF has not fully internalised, properly analysed or responded adequately to the scale of its defeat in 2011.

While there has been a multitude of apologies, too often they have carried the weight of an errant husband, who on belatedly realising an anniversary has been forgotten, buys the cheapest bunch of flowers at a petrol station and then wonders why he is being shouted at.

Ultimately, the great flaw of the apology strategy is that it has been somewhat too formulaic and all too easy.

Should you burn down a house, or a country, it is certainly good manners to apologise for the deed, but you should really be investigating why the event occurred.

In the case of FF, though, the "sorry is all that I can say to you" line has facilitated a lethargic narrative where both country and party were victims of German bondholders, bad luck, Lehman's bank, bad luck, Bertie, Biffo, the malign fates, a minor excess of arrogance and a certain degree of lunacy.

This narrative is far too lightweight a construct to explain how we have got to the land of "we are where we are".

And significantly, the current malign polls suggest that the electorate has rumbled the FF strategy and decided FF has been too kind with itself for our good.

So how is FF to reverse the view that its failure to fully divine the cause of its great destruction of the State means the electorate still believes FF is not fit for government?

The first thing Fianna Fail might do is to follow the path taken by Fine Gael after 2002 where the party essentially held a tribunal of inquiry under the strategist Frank Flannery into its fitness to practice as an ongoing political organisation.

Those of us who were entertained by the spectacle of Fine Gael beating itself up in public (again!) over its failings, for all our smart talk, missed the point.

The real significance of that report lay in its recognition that a threshold of survival had been reached where, if Fine Gael was to continue to exist, the time had passed for self-indulgence, infighting and amateur philosophising.

Just as my enemy's enemy is always my friend, Fine Gael came to the stark conclusion that it had to become more like Fianna Fail than Fianna Fail itself if it were to survive.

Indeed, some would argue that like one of those cheap schlock horror movies, when it came to the Flannery experiment, the process was so successful that Fine Gael has mutated into a combination of the worst elements of both parties.

It should be noted the last thing Irish politics needs is for Fianna Fail to hold an inquiry into how they might become a 'Liter' version of Fine Gael, for one Fine Gael party is more than enough.

However, until something as fundamental as the Flannery report is held into its skeletal state, FF will continue to resemble the sick man who refuses to go to the doctor lest he find out what's wrong.

Something existential went wrong with the old Republican party of Fianna Fail, right back to the birth-pangs of the Haughey era, which ultimately bled into the country.

And that will not be remedied by Fianna Fail's 'Dear Leader' gallivanting around the country like a busy fool nodding, empathising and apologising to the citizens like a latter-day Enda Lite.

On one level, it is surprising FF has not conducted such an inquiry for, whilst FG's low in 2002 was not that different to those experienced in the past, in 2011 FF went from being a great monolith to being as small and vulnerable as the Irish Labour Party.

Instead, despite its reputation as the great Irish pragmatist, FF has been so incapable of reforming itself it was unable to even use the Seanad, in a similar way to FG in 2002 to groom a clean slate of new candidates.

To be fair, such caution may be explained by the fact that the party is still stunned by the outworking of election 2011.

However, two years have passed, and continuing to resemble the fellow who, on being told he is an alcoholic, decides to go off the jar for November, will not cure what currently ails the ongoing sick man of Irish politics.

There is still an opportunity for FF to achieve such a transformation for it is in a similar position to the transition year student who still has the freedom to prepare for the Leaving Certificate.

Similarly, what FF does during the current phoney war in our political shadow-lands will define its performance when the real battles occur next summer.

Ominously, for now the sense is that a party traumatised by internal and external wars is basking in the current tranquillity too much for its future good.

It is time instead that like the best physicians, Fianna Fail realised it must heal itself voluntarily.

But for that to occur, it must find the courage to examine and treat itself.

Sunday Independent

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