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Fianna Fail's Don Quixote is merely tilting at windmills

To all appearances, Micheal Martin, in the announcement of the new Fianna Fail frontbench, has learnt nothing and forgotten nothing. Even with the restrictions under which he operated, he had the chance to start a recovery programme for the party that he helped bring to its knees, but seems to have grasped on a programme of action not unlike that of the Knight of the Rueful Countenance, Don Quixote himself, when he set out to battle windmills.

Martin is protected by the neophyte character of much of his team and it will be interesting to see how they respond to the challenge. But the real problem he faced was that of dealing with what looks like a relentless act of collective self-immolation by a once-great political organisation.

How do we summarise this? The best way is by looking back at the chronology of events and identifying those that were errors of an egregious nature requiring apology or change of heart. How did power drain from Fianna Fail? Is there a road back? Should one start with any apology? Should one make provision for the offer of a new deal?

At the time of Cowen's elevation to the job of Taoiseach, in the spring of 2008, Fianna Fail had a respectable mid-term level of support at about 39pc. In March 2008, the main issue was Bertie Ahern, who was told he had to go by Cowen and departed the scene while it was still outwardly comfortable and in good shape. Cowen then became the issue and there was a slight rise of approval for April 2008 to 40pc, but this then dropped back in late April to 38pc. Cowen and the Lisbon Treaty referendum were the main issues.

The defeat of Fianna Fail over the referendum was politically a fiasco but resulted in an increase in support, up to 40pc. In September, it was down a bit, to 36pc, a manageable level of support. It was the bank crisis, with the bank guarantee put in place at the end of that month, that did the business. Support dropped 10 points to 26pc. For more than two years it stayed in the low to mid-20s, an unprecedented decline in party fortunes unaddressed by Cowen and his Cabinet, including Martin.

The party was clearly not losing ground, electorally, it had lost it and nothing was helping. There was reassurance in the fact that no comparable gains were there for the other parties. Fine Gael and Labour were not picking up enough to panic Fianna Fail, but party support had become a major issue for the electorate.

Fianna Fail went doggedly on, through the European and local elections and then the second Lisbon Treaty referendum in the autumn of 2009. Its poll standing kept on dropping, 23pc, 22pc, 21pc. Then it added NAMA to the litany of danger areas to be faced by the Government. By the end of 2010, support was down to 18pc, falling to 17pc as senior party members announced their departure and an election loomed.

It came to rely on the worst of props, the Green Party. So long as they held together, and despite the annihilation predicted for their partners in power, there seemed to be time in hand. The Dail was still little over three years into its five-year term. Cowen was soldiering on. The army metaphor is appropriate: his electoral stance and his method of campaigning was that of a blunt and at times brutal fighter. In such circumstances, it is perhaps understandable no one thought of changing policies or objectives.

But with the change of leadership, with a new Dail, with the reality of the electoral wipeout, some kind of change of heart and of direction should have been in Martin's brief on Tuesday. He might fittingly have begun with a statement about how the party should have recognised the following critical issues which caused their downfall.

Their handling of the first Lisbon referendum and their decision about holding a second one indicates they should have listened more carefully to the electorate. It also revealed that the Irish people, in Fianna Fail's view, mattered less than the bureaucrats in Europe.

The banks and the collapse of the economy laid bare a fix-it mentality void of regulation and control, devoted to party and personal interest, dismissive of a public service that they had ignored or undermined, and an inner-elite running the country in an essentially ad hoc way.

Patronage of the worst kind, extending disgracefully into the very last days of Fianna Fail in power, had become a deeply ingrained part of the organisation's culture and remains so.

The party had a benign and accepting view of political corruption. Pathetic attempts at legislative reform during three terms in office and aimed at better control of this had the reverse effect. The legal framework for this was weakened, some would say deliberately, by Fianna Fail in office, rather than strengthened.

My views on how this might be changed were part of the specific view I expressed at the time of the leadership change from Cowen to Martin. In writing about Eamon O Cuiv, whose background and likely response to the party's biggest defeat since it was formed were part of his undeniable appeal, I regarded him as the best option, Martin as the worst.

Martin had an opportunity to address some, if not all, of these issues this week. And what did he do?

PUTting Brian Lenihan back into the role of spokesperson on Finance was a denial of all the above. It will mean he will flounder on, congratulating himself for those things the new Government keeps in place and making folklore out of the way he wrecked the economy.

Keeping O Cuiv on the margins, with responsibility for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and with no role in reshaping Fianna Fail, is clearly a far more serious error, its significance masked, firstly because the announcement of the new frontbench involved everyone who got elected and was simply a make-and-mend approach; secondly, because important aspects of his role, such as the stricter regulation of RTE -- so badly needed -- are unlikely to materialise because the frontbench will consider the damage from this totally outweighs the need for firm regulation.

If the past three years tell a sad story of political decline toward oblivion, the three most recent opinion polls, Red C for the 'Sunday Business Post', put nails in the coffin, recording the lowest percentages ever of 16pc in January, crawling up to 17pc in February and down again to 16pc in April.

One needs to ask the question: why did Martin seek the post at all and when will he do something about the future of a once-major political force in Ireland?

Irish Independent