Monday 10 December 2018

Hard times indeed for the Fianna Failures

The Fianna Fail leader is trying to rebrand his grumpy, resentful party, but he really shouldn't bother, writes Gene Kerrigan

Let's say a few words in praise of Micheal Martin. I know, I know, all leaders of Fianna Fail are irredeemable chancers, it says so in the Bible. But, there are good things to be said about Micheal Martin.

Okay, let's rephrase that: there's one good thing to be said about him.

Having wrecked the economy, with the help of developers and bankers, Fianna Fail knew they'd get an electoral hiding in 2011.

There was little chance of ministerial office for at least 10 years. Some FF patriots took the big pension and retired early, preferring to doss rather than work as mere TDs.

Had Micheal Martin done likewise, the absurdly generous pensions for politicians would have ensured he'd be on about 30 grand a year more than he makes now as a TD. By not doing a runner, he will by 2020 have lost out on roughly €300,000.

Whatever else you may say about him, he's not in politics for the money. He appears to have a real belief that he can revive Fianna Fail's fortunes.

Why bother?

There was a time when FF could claim it represented something other than the urge to keep on going.

The original Sinn Fein morphed into the twin parties Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. FG unashamedly represented the comfortable classes, displaying undisguised contempt for the lower orders.

Some of those who invented FG were so right wing that in the 1930s they embraced fascism. The party's first leader, General O'Duffy - now airbrushed from the party's official history - strutted around exchanging Hitler salutes with his uniformed followers.

Their most electorally successful TD, Oliver Flanagan, during the war told the Dail of his admiration for Hitler, and suggested Ireland follow his example in chasing out the Jews. Ten years later he was made a Fine Gael minister. He was made minister for defence as late as the mid-1970s. Fianna Fail from the early years sought to represent not only the comfortable classes but the working class and small farmers.

Given their shared conservative politics and their civil war differences, the twin parties inevitably bred a loyalty that was tribal, like English football teams from the same city.

By the 1980s, FF/FG rivalry had as little to do with political differences as the rivalry between Man United and Man City.

Through the decades, FF became used to electoral success and its benefits. The corruption festered.

You could buy Fine Gael councillors. But, for the truly ambitious, Fianna Fail's grip on political office for increasingly long periods helped it become the No 1 party to bribe.

The dynamic, reforming Charlie Haughey of the 1960s became Mr Offshore. It's likely only a fraction of his crimes were unearthed by tribunals.

Even honest Fianna Failers were infected. They queued to earnestly explain Haughey's innocence ("he got a good price for the oul' house in Donnycarney"). Meanwhile, the millionaire Haughey flew back from Paris to sail to his own island, on his own yacht, to holiday there in his expensively built holiday mansion (quite separate from his Kinsealy mansion).

Business people struggling to get projects off the ground were asked for "political donations". There would, of course, be no connection between any donation - or failure to make one - and any political help or hindrance that might follow. Or so the subsequent tribunals were assured.

To spend time in the company of some FF politicians in the glory days, along with their hangers-on and the crafty lads lurking in the shadows, was to witness the lordly swagger of the proudly crooked.

FF found itself in charge when the bankers crashed the banks, when the developers destroyed the property business.

Their panicky blundering made things worse. Soon, they could do little but follow orders from the bankers; and the ECB; and the IMF; and the secretary of the Fed; and the Man From Apple.

They went into the 2011 election with 71 TDs and came out with 20.

Fine Gael cheered on the bankers and promised to do precisely what FF did, but to do it better. But FF was in office, so FG could pretend it had no role in creating the bubble.

Micheal Martin, as the new FF leader, recognised the depth of the revulsion the party's pre-2008 behaviour created among voters. He has sought to slowly reposition FF as caring, but responsible.

Fine Gael's ineptitude and the harshness of its underlying economic principles helped him. At the 2016 General Election, Fianna Fail more than doubled its number of TDs.

Political commentators love saying things like, "Irish voters are sophisticated". Irish voters are habitual.

Micheal Martin's "caring but responsible" position may convince some, but it can only go so far. In practice, in the current cartel arrangement with FG, it means repeatedly claiming FF cares about people, while using Dail votes to protect Fine Gael from the real opposition - Sinn Fein and the left-wing TDs.

When SF put down a motion of no confidence in Eoghan Murphy's disastrous handling of housing, FF abstained. Tweedle Martin repeatedly chanted the inane slogan, "Motions don't build houses".

When the 'Take Back the City' movement emerged, Tweedle Varadkar adapted the inane slogan: "Protests don't build houses."

The truth, of course, is that Fine Gael doesn't build houses, nor does Fianna Fail. And without a lead from the State the crisis will continue.

The twin parties share a policy of "incentivising" the private sector. That's fancy language for bribing the private sector, with ever larger profits, through grants and tax breaks, in the hope that it will build more houses. The parties differ in approach: FG fancies bribing landlords; FF prefers bribing builders (fair enough, I suppose, given the money that flowed from builders to FF).

Both FG and FF were equally subservient to the Catholic hierarchy throughout the 20th Century. Fine Gael, though, has made a much more efficient pivot towards the prevailing mood. It eagerly promotes its gay leader as a symbol of its commitment to the new Ireland - though, until FG made that pivot Varadkar was utterly innocent of any history of activity on the gay rights issue, or any other.

Meanwhile, FF TDs were trying to prevent a referendum on the Eighth Amendment. Opposing removal of the Eighth was a legitimate political position. Attempting to deny a whole generation a vote, either way, on such a basic issue effectively told the young to shut up or bugger off, they've no place in Fianna Fail's Ireland.

The effect of that mindless, utter rejection of the young and the tolerant will take a generation to reverse.

Micheal Martin is also hampered by a rump of the party that bitterly resents the voters for denying FF its rightful place in high office.

The rump's displeasure causes fidgety eruptions of dissent against Micheal Martin and his "caring but responsible" strategy.

He wisely chose not to run a presidential candidate - why invite an unnecessary defeat? Instead, he backed Michael D Higgins.

Irritated members of the old FF rump toyed with pushing Eamon O Cuiv for the job, but chickened out. Instead, they back their old National Executive fundraiser, Sean Gallagher.

Micheal Martin would have been personally better off had he not bothered trying to revive a resentful FF. More important, so would the rest of us.

Sunday Independent

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