Saturday 24 February 2018

Fionnan Sheahan: Martin takes a big gamble on FF's young turks

Fianna Fail leader is looking to his new recruits to secure his leadership of the party

NEW TO POLITICS: Jennifer Cuffe, 27, who will contest a county council seat for Fianna Fail in Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown, only became involved with the party last year.
NEW TO POLITICS: Jennifer Cuffe, 27, who will contest a county council seat for Fianna Fail in Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown, only became involved with the party last year.

Fionnan Sheahan Group Political Editor Fionnan Sheahan

SITTING around the circular table in their windowless party meeting room in the basement of Leinster House, Fianna Fail's TDs and senators were supposed to be discussing pylons. Instead, Micheal Martin was breaking the worst-kept secret that Colm Keaveney had applied to join the party.

Mr Martin explained he had already talked to some of those present, leaving those he hadn't spoken to feeling left out of the loop.

Brendan Smith, who was chairing the meeting, simply declared: "Is that agreed?"

Four TDs immediately replied: "Agreed."

That was the extent of the discussion.

"It was set up to be unanimous," a party TD said.

Given the state of the party and lack of successors emerging in Limerick City, Willie O'Dea expressing concern for the local organisation in Galway East over the new arrival did provide some amusement among Fianna Fail TDs.

Despite some grumbling, Mr Martin had added a TD, bringing his numbers in the Dail back up to 20, where he was after the general election, before the sad passing of Brian Lenihan.

However, Mr Keaveney's addition doesn't resolve Mr Martin's big problem of all his TDs being male and from outside Dublin.

Later that night, Mr Martin was attempting to redress that balance as he canvassed in the south county Dublin suburb of Rathfarnham with one of the party's local elections candidates, Emma Murphy, a former inter-county footballer.

Twice a week, the Fianna Fail leader is out canvassing with young candidates in the capital trying to revive the party's fortunes.

Party figures say his experiences on the doorsteps influence his decisions on what to bring up in the Dail with the Taoiseach the following morning.

The local elections present a make-or-break challenge to Mr Martin on a number of fronts. If he fails to sufficiently push the Fianna Fail vote up across the country, he's a goner as party leader.

But in Dublin, the Corkman needs to get a bounce to convince his TDs he can cut it in the capital and also get a batch of fresh faces elected who can go on to become candidates in the next general election.

Even based on current polls, the party is confident it can win a seat in any of the four- and five-seat constituencies in Dublin.

The three-seaters are a bigger ask, and there is an acceptance some may take two elections.

"Dublin is coming together. It's better than it was but there's a long road to travel," a senior party source said.

But the blank electoral map is helping to attract hungry young candidates who see a prime opportunity to make an impact.

Mr Martin is placing his faith – and potentially his future as leader – in the hands of untried, untested and inexperienced first-time contenders.

If his gamble fails, Mr Martin's days as party leader are numbered. But if these young candidates get elected with a strong vote, then they are on the ticket in 2016.

Enda Kenny was in the same boat a decade ago.

Curiously, echoing the emergence of Lucinda Creighton and Leo Varadkar in the 2004 local elections for Fine Gael, a female lawyer on the southside and a male trainee doctor on the west of the city, both in their 20s, are typical of the candidates Fianna Fail is pinning its hopes on.

Neither Jennifer Cuffe nor Jack Chambers are shy about their future ambitions.

Ms Cuffe is a 27-year-old barrister from Cabinteely, running for Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council in an area where the party hasn't held a council seat for a decade.

The barrister's work in the area of family law in the courts translates into an interest in influencing party policy on families, childcare and education.

She held a public meeting on early childcare last week and conducted a survey among creches and schools in the area about local services.

Her voluntary work with the St Vincent de Paul, since she left school, and with Meals-On-Wheels and the Free Legal Advice Centre, gives her an insight into the reality of life on the ground.

"I have seen what's happening with people that might be described as the new poor. I can see the effects the recession has on my own area and elsewhere in Dublin," she said.

She has no family background in politics and only became involved with Fianna Fail last year, after working on a friend's campaign for the party national executive.

"My mother nearly had a heart attack when I said I was getting involved in politics," she said.

Ms Cuffe said she agreed with Fianna Fail core principles and is unfazed by the toxicity around the party presiding over the economic collapse. "I want to help with the party moving on," she said.

She admitted becoming a TD would be "the dream", but is focused on the locals.

"At the moment, I just have to look at the near future and the local elections, before I get ahead of myself and I think I am the next big thing," she said.

Mr Chambers said he's already getting the Varadkar comparisons, as he's from the same area in Castleknock, is studying medicine and his parents are both medics.

"On the doorsteps it comes up. Leo is in politics for the right reasons and I respect that. I am trying to earn my own right to represent people," he said.

The 23-year-old already has a degree in law and political science from Trinity College Dublin and is currently balancing second-year medicine in the Royal College of Surgeons with running in the local elections.

"I see politics as a vocation more than work. I have a big interest in health between my own background and campaigning against the potential cutbacks in Connolly Hospital," he said.

His involvement in politics came from his father, Frank Chambers, a party activist and a close friend of the late Brian Lenihan.

As part of his local election bid, Chambers is reopening Mr Lenihan's old constituency office in Dublin 15's Laurel Lodge.

He doesn't rule out the hope of it being a TD's office with a general election run.

"In the medium term, if the opportunity arose, I definitely would. But I am not looking beyond the locals and putting in the work between now and May," he said.

Across Dublin, the pattern is being replicated with similar candidates.

Mr Martin desperately needs some of the new generation he is gambling on to make the breakthrough.

But Fianna Fail's frailties in Dublin won't be repaired by a few young turks.

The late Seamus Brennan often used to say that, with almost a third of Dail seats up for grabs, Dublin was "the cockpit of any government".

Bertie Ahern's strength in Dublin saw Fianna Fail winning 21 seats in the capital in the 1997 general election, 21 in 2002 and 19 in 2007 as the party formed three governments.

But Fianna Fail's rot in the capital had set in long before the 2011 General Election meltdown.

The party's vote share in local elections was cut in half between 1999 and 2009 and the number of councillors reduced by three-quarters.

Down to just six seats out of 52 on Dublin City Council, Fianna Fail has only one city councillor south of the Liffey.

In the whole of Dublin city and county, Fianna Fail has just 18 seats out of 130.

After the last disastrous locals, former junior minister Chris Flood was tasked by then Taoiseach Brian Cowen to come up with recommendations for reforming the organisation in the capital.

Mr Flood didn't pull punches in his assessment, as he said many of the city-based cumann, or branches, "no longer make a real contribution to the work of the party".

He painted a picture of a structure dominated by the individual fiefdoms of sitting politicians.

The Drumcondra Mafia organisation model was successful while it lasted, but it left the party damaged in the long term.

Mr Flood's report was well regarded but it was too late to take action before the 2011 wipeout, although it has influenced subsequent reforms.

Fianna Fail's recovery in Dublin won't happen over-night. Mr Martin is keeping his fingers crossed the young soldiers he is pressing into the frontline can win to stave off his own demise.

Sunday Independent

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