What was a feared organisation has now degenerated into a medley of dissidents
Published 29/05/2015 | 02:30
When Micheál Martin alienated Averil Power, he "threw a pearl away, richer than all his tribe". Richer, certainly, than the remnants of the Fianna Fáil parliamentary tribe who sit beside and behind him in the Dáil. Of the 18 deputies who support him there, half a dozen at most make any visible contribution to the party or the country.
At other levels, the scene is equally dispiriting. In the never-to-be-forgotten year of 2008, the party lost its reputation for economic competence. In opposition since 2011, it has also lost its reputation for discipline and cohesion. Its once-feared organisation has degenerated into a medley of dissidents who do not know how to make their presence felt to any effect and have baffled loyalists with nothing credible to say.
On April 24, the leader claimed that he had calmed dissent. One month later, Averil Power resigned from the party, making a blistering speech in which she accused it of lacking "vision, courage and leadership".
She was not alone in her anger and frustration, or in blaming the party leader.
Not long earlier, another woman, Mary Fitzpatrick, had put the case in a slightly different way. The party, she said, "has missed opportunity after opportunity, and recovery appears increasingly elusive."
Ms Fitzpatrick's career has been such as to make any other woman wonder why she should ever enter politics.
Her suffering at the hands of the "Drumcondra Mafia" were once notorious. All sorts of tricks were deployed against her, every obstacle placed in her way.
She now has no seat in the Dáil or the European Parliament, although it would be entirely to the party's advantage to have her in one of those institutions.
The attitudes which have consigned her to limbo and driven Ms Power out of the party may be attributed in part to gender prejudice and/or the localism that plagues Irish politics.
Mr Martin attributes Ms Power's departure to a row over a nomination for the Dublin Bay North constituency. This brings to mind another defect of the system - multi-seat constituencies. But events in Dublin Bay North (who dreams up those strange names?) are a trifle compared with those that accompanied the referendum on same-sex marriage.
Here, if anywhere, was a missed opportunity.
Ms Power was an enthusiast for a Yes vote (and is an enthusiast for many other causes). She drew up detailed plans for a Fianna Fáil Yes campaign. She was ignored, or laughed at.
Evidently, the party's representatives at every level fail to notice the Yes bandwagon until it rolled over them. They certainly failed to see a most remarkable and most relevant fact, that the Yes vote in working-class constituencies almost equalled that in middle-class constituencies.
How could this have happened in a party which had always prided itself on, and gained handsomely from, keeping in touch with the grassroots?
Deputies and councillors stayed at home or headed south to campaign for Bobby Aylward in the Carlow-Kilkenny by-election. The by-election result was a Fianna Fáil triumph, but of little account when compared with the sensational - and predictable - outcome of the referendum.
Who has taken the credit for this victory? Labour deserves much of the credit but has not got it. Fine Gael has taken most of it - far too much, in fact. And Fianna Fáil? Deputy Timmy Dooley has summed it up: "Male, stale, and outside the Pale."
Before any of that happened, Deputy Eamon O Cuiv had spoken of "an absolute collapse in self-belief".
Self-belief - sometimes justified, but sometimes in total contradiction of reality - had long been a central characteristic of the party. Now, with the General Election looming, it is desperately needed. Can anyone restore it?
Viewed against the circumstances with which Mr Martin has struggled as opposition leader and as Taoiseach, he has not been a bad leader.
He has held his nerve throughout one of the most appalling periods in Irish history. He speaks with moderation and good sense. And nobody can contemplate, without a shudder, a leadership contest almost on the eve of a general election; a contest, moreover, most unlikely to bring about any improvement in the party's standing.
He will have difficulties enough in the absence of a contest. He has created at least one of them for himself - presumably after due reflection.
He has ruled out a coalition with either Sinn Féin or Fine Gael. Most of us might have well taken the first for granted.
The second is a horse of an entirely different colour. By general agreement, a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil coalition is the likeliest option for the next government.
But one look at the record of coalitions suffices to tell us the probable fate of a minority party in any Irish coalition.
While he considers his very limited options, he must pray that the dissidents will "take a pull" at themselves and refrain from any further attacks. That, however, seems unlikely in a party which has become so lacking in cohesion.
Yet in the midst of all his troubles, he has doubtless glimpsed what may turn out to have been one small ray of light.
During the referendum campaign, an informal but heavyweight committee of backroom boys did a lot of quiet work for a Yes vote. That can be, and one presumes will be, revived and expanded.
But backroom boys are not enough. Fianna Fáil, and all parties, need backroom girls as well. But where to find the new Averil Powers? A political career is the last thing on their minds.