I JOINED Fianna Fail in 1976. Much has been written about my coming from a Fianna Fail family but the reality is, I didn't know how my parents voted until after I joined the party.
For some unknown reason, I'd always been interested in politics and looking around at each party, I decided to join Fianna Fail. I believed in a united Ireland. My mother had republican tendencies. My father was involved in the equivalent of the trade union in the civil service so at mealtimes we had lengthy discussions on the plight of our fellow citizens in Northern Ireland and workers in general. I believed strongly that ordinary people should have an input into a political party. Fianna Fail fitted the bill on all these issues and so I joined, first the local cumann, then Ogra, the party's youth section.
I became immersed in party activity and just loved it. The first election I canvassed in was in 1977. The buzz. Excitement. Sense of expectation.
The party I joined doesn't exist at the moment. It has lost its connection with ordinary people. It has lost its connection with its own rank and file membership.
Who, with an ounce of political savvy, would have thought taking the medical card from old-age pensioners was a good move? Whatever about excluding or restricting future recipients, to withdraw it was madness. Any party with its finger on the pulse would have known that.
Other factors contributed to the disconnection. We became transfixed by the theatre of tribunals and became blinkered to economic storm clouds gathering on the horizon. In short, we all, save but a few courageous economic academic souls, took our eye off the ball; government, Opposition and media. However, the handling of the subsequent fallout was appalling.
In times gone by, the party membership had always been involved in the running of the party. There may have been bitter arguments -- in some instances, outright war within local cumann over national and party issues -- but there was participation and a knowledge that, as a member, your support and opinion were important to the parliamentary party and, in particular, to the leadership.
From about 2007 on, there was a steady decline in party participation, a sense that the guys at the top were a law unto themselves and that the members on the ground, the very people who could give an accurate reading of the mood of the nation, counted for nothing. Loyal party members felt betrayed, cut loose, were given no information and had nothing to fight back with. They were like the fellow with no arms and legs left guarding the bridge in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
From what was labelled 'Garglegate' on, the party seemed to withdraw from public communication altogether. It stumbled from one disaster to another, all the while treating the people with silent contempt by its lack of communication.
If Fianna Fail had changed its leader at the time of 'Garglegate' and gone for an early general election, it certainly would have lost a substantial number of seats but nothing like the carnage that actually occurred.
The only thing that surprised me about the last general election was the fact that Fianna Fail managed to get even 20 seats, given the level of animosity towards it.
With support for Fianna Fail consistently sitting at around 16 per cent, Micheal Martin needs to take the party by the scruff of the neck. He needs to take the words of the Mexican revolutionary, Emiliano Zapata, to heart. Zapata said: "It is better to die on your feet than live on your knees."
As President of Fianna Fail, Martin should lead the charge. The people voted for change. Has anyone in the party analysed what that change is? Initially it was just a case of 'anybody but Fianna Fail' but now it's time for real politics. All the sticks with which Fine Gael and Labour beat FF are now rods for their own backs. Let them off. The party needs to stop licking its wounds and look at what the people need. This is our country, yet whole sections of it are unrepresented. We need to see passion, conviction, drive, confidence, purposeful debate. We need an opposition party capable of taking the gloves off and landing killer blows when the electorate need them to do so. Stop feeling sorry for yourselves, lads, and start representing the people who voted for you.
In 1937, Fianna Fail made a significant change in its targeted support base from small farmers and petit-bourgeoisie to a broad social base spanning all sections of society. It became known as a 'catch-all' party. This change in tactics came about because of the changing demographic at the time. Today we see a similar major change in the demographic and a matching need to reposition a once mighty party. It had better become a 'catch-some' party before it is obliterated.
Fianna Fail is a minority party and until it adjusts its mindset to that, it is doomed. The middle ground in Irish politics is crowded out. The party needs to find a new political position, carve out a new niche for itself, starting with the 16 per cent support base it currently has.
Like all growth processes, it starts with the roots, with the building of the party from the grass roots up. I live in Clare, once a Fianna Fail stronghold. I haven't heard of one communication received by members or former members from the party leadership or party HQ since the last election. Timmy Dooley has thanked those who canvassed for him but as far as I'm aware, that's it.
Micheal Martin would want to get his act together. I don't know what means of assessment the party used in 1937 when redefining its position on the political spectrum but I'm damn sure it wasn't a wait-and-see approach.
I remember during the leadership heaves of the Eighties, Bertie Ahern telling me that as whip, he spoke at length to the media, not to give them information about impending votes, but to communicate indirectly with the rank-and-file membership. Letting them know what was happening in the party and giving them some ammunition with which to fight their corner. The same should apply today. If ever what's left of the rank and file needed ammunition to fight its corner, it's now.
Martin must rebuild the party's local community base, rebuild a sense of participation in and loyalty to the political ideology which the party must inevitably adopt. Social media and technology can maintain contact from central office, supplying regular updates on policy but connection on the ground is vital.
The trust and confidence of 16 per cent of the electorate is riding on Micheal Martin's back and the key question is: does he have the energy, the vitality, the will to drive the party forward? Can he combine the wisdom of some of the old guard with the vision and passion of the younger members such as Donegal's Brian O Domhnaill, to create a new political movement? Can he change a political culture, create a political vision?
Micheal Martin has a limited time to prove himself. Because one political reality that never goes away is; if you're not moving forward, you're moving backward. And, since the election, we've seen few signs of forward movement by Fianna Fail.