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James Downey: FF needs an election as much as the opposition

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'Attention has focused on two admittedly intriguing events: the first was the former Taoiseach's criticism of his successor, Mr Cowen, and his breathtaking assertion that he, the Bert,
could have pulled us through the financial meltdown. He broke a basic rule, and a good one: that retired Taoisigh do not criticise their successors.' Photo: Tom Burke

'Attention has focused on two admittedly intriguing events: the first was the former Taoiseach's criticism of his successor, Mr Cowen, and his breathtaking assertion that he, the Bert, could have pulled us through the financial meltdown. He broke a basic rule, and a good one: that retired Taoisigh do not criticise their successors.' Photo: Tom Burke

'Attention has focused on two admittedly intriguing events: the first was the former Taoiseach's criticism of his successor, Mr Cowen, and his breathtaking assertion that he, the Bert, could have pulled us through the financial meltdown. He broke a basic rule, and a good one: that retired Taoisigh do not criticise their successors.' Photo: Tom Burke

SOMETHING is stirring in the Fianna Fail undergrowth, but it's terribly hard to see. It reminds me of those nature programmes on television, where you can't quite tell whether you're viewing the birth of a baby elephant or a pride of lions feasting.

At least on television you have the hushed voice of David Attenborough or some other presenter to guide you. And you have a little reddish light to illuminate the scene. There is precious little light to make the Fianna Fail scene clearer, and nothing at all in the way of wise voices.

You might think they would have their minds focused on the General Election: that they would be thinking about candidates and strategy, preparing to fight over questions like how many candidates per constituency, analysing the opinion polls yet again to find if they have missed something in the figures, and coming up with forecasts of how many seats they will win in the next Dail.

Such forecasts do exist, but you won't hear about them from the backroom boys and girls in Upper Mount Street. You will hear them from people who can't bring themselves to believe that Fianna Fail could fall to third place in a general election. Some think the party could hold as many as 50 seats.

I go along with the usual forecast, between 30 and 40, but I don't entirely dismiss the possibility of 50. Certainly there are some voters who, when they reach the sanctuary of the voting booth, will simply find it impossible to change the habits, one might almost say the ritual, of a lifetime.

No doubt it was to such voters that Eamon O Cuiv wished to appeal during the Donegal South West by-election campaign when he denounced those, real or imaginary, who wanted to get rid of the Catholic Church and the GAA as well as Fianna Fail. I doubt if such revolutionaries exist. I am sure the traditional voters exist, but they showed little sign of their presence in Donegal. The Fianna Fail vote fell by more than half. The party must try another tack.

But what tack? Historians have pointed out that since 1926 Fianna Fail has never achieved a single one of its stated objectives: ending partition, restoring the Irish language, abolishing emigration, keeping families on the land, etc, etc.

For these aims, it has substituted its reputation for pragmatism and competence. But that reputation has lately been shattered. Almost nothing is left now but blind loyalty and attacks on Enda Kenny.

Anyone who wants to lead the party must start from that bleak point. And a new leader will labour under several other handicaps.

At the General Election, Fianna Fail has little option but to rely on the dwindling traditional vote. To restore itself to anything approaching its former dominant position, it must find a much broader appeal. And not the kind of appeal that gave Bertie Ahern his electoral successes. This, as we can now see, was built on sand.

As it happens, a blueprint, or at least a sketch, of new departures already exists in the form of 'The House Always Wins', the book published by Deputy John McGuinness before Christmas. It puts forward many sensible and practical ideas. It shows rare consciousness of the defects of the administration. It prompts reflection on issues which seldom enter into public debate, like the status of his beloved Kilkenny -- a reminder of the awfulness of Irish local government.

To the best of my knowledge, nobody of influence in his party has taken up any of his points. Instead, attention has focused on two admittedly intriguing events.

The first was the former Taoiseach's criticism of his successor and his breathtaking assertion that he, the Bert, could have pulled us through the financial meltdown. He broke a basic rule, and a good one: that retired Taoisigh do not criticise their successors. Back to the cupboard with you, Bertie.

Secondly, three junior ministers, all regarded as up-and-coming men, put forward the proposition that the party leadership should "skip a generation". The next leader should be someone in his or her 30s or 40s.

IT'S easy to see the sense in that. Leading an opposition is a hellish job at best. Worse in the case of a party too long accustomed to power and privilege. Worse still for Fianna Fail at a time of economic crisis and low morale -- and dismal prospects. It could take 10 years for Brian Lenihan, Micheal Martin or Mary Hanafin to reach the Taoiseach's Office. By then, they will all be over 60. A fourth possible contender, Eamon O Cuiv, will be 70.

But let's see who the proponents of choosing someone younger are. They are Barry Andrews, Conor Lenihan and Dara Calleary. Each of the three represents the third generation of a political dynasty. I would be more impressed if their proposal came from someone outside the system.

Still, their ideas should not be rejected because of their backgrounds any more than they should be accepted for the same reason. Anyone can understand their impatience -- though I wonder whether, as true-blue Fianna Failers, they fully understand their own motivation.

The Cowen Government is worn out, spent. It ceased governing long ago. Every day that it continues in office is a day wasted.

This is not just harmful for the opposition parties and the country at large; it is harmful for Fianna Fail.

It needs to get the election over and done with, then sit down and argue over how to renew itself. And forget about Brian Cowen and his bowl of shamrock.

Irish Independent