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Johny Fallon: Pride after a fall for a party that keeps making mistakes

FIANNA Fail in crisis. The letters that make up that sentence must be worn out on the keyboards of headline writers over the last three years. At the heart of this problem has been a consistent inability on the part of those running the party to listen to advice from outside their own closeted circle.

The current crisis will be all the more frustrating for members because it was utterly of the party’s own making. It was so obvious and so avoidable that to see it happen is akin to watching someone standing on a track as a massive train is coming hooting and screaming down the lines and they say they just can’t see it.

The presidency should not have been difficult for FF. They could have run a candidate and a cheap campaign. Blinded by commentators who think that campaigns are only about how much you spend, how many posters you have or leaflets you produce they opted against it.

That was just pride. If FF couldn’t afford the glitz then they were opting out, when in fact they could have made a virtue out of having no posters at all, after all we are all pretty fed up looking at posters hanging on poles. If they were determined not to fight then it was obvious that this decision had to be taken early and the hard figures and cash projections honestly laid before all members.

The party top brass, secretive as ever did not do this. ‘Trust us’ was the message. The grassroots know where trust has got them. Unfortunately too many of those handling this crisis seem incapable of grasping the fact that openness and facing questions honestly is the only answer.

Once Fianna Fail had decided that they would not contest the election, they were lucky to find that their organisation accepted the fact even if they were annoyed at the lack of information and how it was handled. They were eager to focus on the Dublin West by-election. For anyone with even the slightest bit of political acumen the next step was plainly obvious. Fianna Fail cannot be seen to block candidates seeking to get on the ballot. The public are already unhappy with the nomination process. For Fianna Fail to deny anyone the chance to stand would seem them blamed far more than any other party, after all what’s it to Fianna Fail?

They have already said the presidency doesn’t matter enough to contest it, so why would they be so concerned about ensuring that the backed one particular person? The only reasonable course of action was to keep the party itself out of the contest and tell the Oireachtas members that they had a free vote on a personal level to support nominations as they saw fit, but that this was not the business of the party which has decided not to contest.

Instead FF inexplicably decided it would vote as one group on the matter, thereby dragging the party back into a race it opted out of. The only reason that makes sense for this, is that FF still hoped that a ‘miracle’ candidate would arise.

In other words, that a celebrity or public figure would announce before the month was out that they wished to run, that this figure would prove highly popular and that the only way they could get on the ticket was with FF support, the party would then ride to the rescue like white knights. They were still hoping for the ‘clever stroke’.

Instead the got Dana, Labhras O’Murchu and David Norris. Let’s look at the problem for FF now. Dana would appeal to some elements of FF, but if the party as one group backs her, then it portrays an image of the party that a great many others will not like.

There are many in FF who would never vote for Dana. It’s too risky to have her as the image the party is now associated with. Labhras is friendly with so many in FF, they don’t want to let him down personally, but too may know that he is as far from the image of a revitalised and reborn party as FF can get.

Backing David Norris would be seen as a magnanimous gesture, but a fear hangs over them that if Norris gets into further trouble then its FF that will take the blame. Simple fact is that the party cannot afford to back any one of these three as a unit.

The idea of a free vote is now the best solution. However, having foolishly and prematurely ruled it out a week ago, reversing that decision has repercussions. Not reversing it has possibly even worse ones. Meanwhile the party members at large look on and say ‘That’s another fine mess you got us into’.

Don’t be surprised if FF does not spend the weekend looking for a new candidate, but this time it will be to come to the party’s rescue and get them out of the nomination mess they created. The idea of opting out of the presidency was predicated on an argument that those who had a ‘fight or bust’ mentality were not ‘realists’.

This of course was nonsense. They were just different approaches, these people were well aware if not more so of the depth of the problems for FF. In any event, the party has now made the mess even more dangerous to the party’s future that running a candidate might have been.

A series of poor decisions has meant that the Dublin West by election now takes on an even bigger meaning. FF do not expect to win, but it will need some kind of boost. It must put in a decent showing, in order to put this presidential debacle behind it. Already FF has been inundated with offers of canvassers from all over the country to lend a hand in Dublin West.

They will not be short of volunteers on the ground if they know how to use them. It will be ironic if the party is to yet again look to these ordinary members to get it out of a mess and help it save some face, while still not having shown any concrete evidence of a new approach to them.

Next week will begin another chapter in the tale. No doubt a lesser party might already have been finished, but still the question must be asked, how much bad advice can someone take before they say ‘enough’?

Johny Fallon is a politcal consultant