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Diarmaid Ferriter: Martin needs to go back to basics and emulate Lemass

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IN 1954, Sean Lemass found himself doing something he had not done in decades. He was back on the road, touring the constituencies, mobilising the Fianna Fail troops and organising the party branches to ensure no stone was left unturned in the quest to get the party back into power.

As a party, Fianna Fail was not used to being in opposition; it had held power from 1932-48, suffered a defeat that left it reeling in 1948 when it was replaced by the first coalition government, and after returning to power from 1951-4 was now facing another spell in opposition. Lemass had been among those deeply shocked by the defeat in 1948 and in 1954, once again, there was a degree of bewilderment, but Lemass was in a position to do something about it, having been appointed to the crucial position of director of organisation, a post he held until 1957.

In June 1956, he wrote to a colleague: "It may not be too long until we will have the chance of rallying people to Fianna Fail again."

He was correct, as Fianna Fail won back power in 1957. Lemass had successfully directed the preparations on which the party was able to build a 16-year period in office, from 1957 to 1973. That mission to rally people has been central to Fianna Fail's political identity and ambition since its foundation in 1926. Lemass and others spent many days and nights in the late 1920s and 1930s travelling around Ireland in second-hand Ford cars, touring every parish in the country and establishing Fianna Fail branches.

Having established the network in the late 1920s and achieved power in 1932, the ongoing challenge was to keep the machine oiled and this was done with remarkable success, overseen by strong centralised control and leaders that were essential to the party's success, an achievement that in 80 years of its political existence witnessed it securing an average of 45pc of the vote, a record that made Fianna Fail remarkable, not just nationally, but internationally.

Historically, Fianna Fail campaigns have been built not just around local organisation but national leadership. Because of their domination of politics and power, Fianna Fail leaders, their abilities, preferences and weaknesses, also contributed much to the shaping of the ethos of the state. As the writer Sean O Faolain observed in 1945, when assessing the impact of party founder and first leader, Eamon de Valera: "In the largest ways public men serve as models for the whole nation. They can disseminate a general philosophy of living, popularise certain attitudes of mind, set standards and create values."

This worked in both negative and positive ways. De Valera was very much associated with increasing independence, extracting concessions from Britain, articulating and defending Irish neutrality and presenting himself as a stubborn but dignified defender of Irish sovereignty. He was also determined to stress his social vision centred on frugality, respectful relations between the different generations and a traditional rural way of life. His successor Lemass, from 1959-66, was more urban focused, much more concerned with economics and a lot more impatient, reflecting a general frustration with lack of economic progress and a determination to try new ways of doing business. But he still felt it was essential to emphasise the association of Fianna Fail with the working class; throughout his career, he was fond of insisting that Fianna Fail was the real Irish Labour party.

His successor, Jack Lynch, leader from 1966-79, was a popular GAA sporting icon first and foremost and endured much because of the fallout from the Arms Crisis in 1970, the machinations of the hawks in his government and the naked material and political ambition of his younger ministers, and at times he was indecisive, failed to control his cabinet and appeared to lack interest and confidence.

In contrast, his successor, Charles Haughey, leader from 1979-92, clearly believed he was the best of the best, and ultimately, it was this self-obsession that cast a shadow over his political career and legacy and, ironically, left him almost pathetically dependent on other people's largesse and money. It also ensured he was prepared to hang on to power at any cost and with a considerable degree of ruthlessness.

The tenure of Albert Reynolds from 1992-4, though brief, will be remembered for his stubbornness but also for his successful approach to paving the way for a deal to end the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

His successor, Bertie Ahern, leader from 1994 to 2008, liked to portray himself as an ordinary man who just happened to be Taoiseach. He craved consensus and often spoke out of three, even four sides of his mouth.

Privately, there was a fierce determination and ruthless streak running through Ahern's bones, most of it involving behind-the-scenes plotting and manoeuvring, and his attention to detail was thorough, which served him well in some respects, notably in relation to negotiating the Good Friday Agreement.

But he was also full of self-serving waffle and in the last few years the massive public relations con-job he perpetrated on the Irish people has been painfully exposed. Under Ahern, material wealth was valued as an end in itself and his successor Brian Cowen simply could not, or would not reverse this travesty of Fianna Fail's original aims as a genuinely republican party concerned with equality and fairness.

It is hardly surprising that the new leader of the party, Micheal Martin, was quick to strike a new tone on Wednesday, and, in setting out his stall, sought to invoke the ghosts of another era, when Fianna Fail made a genuine connection with the less well off. His challenge is to respond credibly to this question: what does Fianna Fail stand for today? And can he, as leader of a soon to be much smaller, and out of government, Fianna Fail, demonstrate that the party and the leader are relevant to the recovery of Ireland?

During general elections, politicians will always insist their country is at a crossroads. In truth, some elections are more important than others and the upcoming election is one of them. A decimation of Fianna Fail will be unprecedented and it is likely that Martin, assuming he is elected a TD, will be the first leader of Fianna Fail not to be Taoiseach.

His leadership abilities, for what they're worth, will be needed, not, as was the case with leaders of Fianna Fail in the past, to serve as a model for the nation, but to rebuild and expand what is likely to be a drastically reduced parliamentary party and a demoralised national organisation which will have lost many volunteers.

They may not have to travel the country in old Ford cars, but for Martin and his colleagues, if they manage to survive the predicted electoral rout, it will be back to touring, back to basics and back to the original challenge of the 1920s.

Diarmaid Ferriter is Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD

Irish Independent