Wannabe Mary has a mountain to climb, just like Fianna Fail
She is the wannabe comeback woman of born-again Fianna Fail – but it seems party leader, Micheal Martin, is not all that enthused about having Mary Hanafin around the place. Yet, this this is make or break time for Mary. She has to try and kick-start a political career down in the doldrums, and slowly heading for oblivion. So in recent weeks, she has been bobbing and weaving out on the FF hinterland, plotting her return to frontline politics.
However, there are many hassles ahead for the one-time government minister. Biggest of all is the suspicion that looking at things from the Micheal Martin inner sanctum, she is viewed politically as 'damaged goods'. But be that as it may, and regardless of the fact she had disappeared from national view following the humiliating loss of her Dail seat – one of the craftiest political operators around is now very much back on the scene.
Her biggest problem is that her image remains rooted in the collective which was Bertie Ahern, Brian Cowen, Mary Coughlan, Noel Dempsey, Dermot Ahern, Willie O'Dea, Eamon O'Cuiv etc, who were around when Irish living standards began to tumble.
The resonance of those names is enough to send a very cold shiver through the marketing and focus group gurus trying to rebrand the new clean-cut Micheal Martin-led Fianna Fail. If they are to succeed, the electorate must be inured to the memory of the party's all too recent past. They know only too well that countless voters continue to labour under all sorts of taxes and charges. Many are hustling for a job, or floundering with mortgage payments. A thirst for revenge and a fixation with the blame game still dominates much of Irish life.
Regardless of such realities, it is now clear Mary Hanafin has no intention of departing the political scene. She is absolutely determined to try and win back her old Dail seat. But a particular problem for her is the still unforgiving anti-Fianna Fail vibe among the Dublin middle classes. No wonder she intoned in the last few days, comments made by her one-time party leader, Bertie Ahern. He bluntly described the position of the party in the capital as "brutal". Referring to the fact the FF rating in Dublin had plummeted to only 9pc, Hanafin later raged on national radio: "That is brutal – that is absolutely appalling."
Weaned in traditional FF culture almost from the cradle – her father, Des, was a luminary of the party for many years – she is well capable of fighting dirty if the stakes are high enough. It's significant she took her cue from a form of 'Bertiespeak' in what can only be a sideways swipe at the current leadership.
But the coming months are critical if she is not to lose momentum within her Dun Laoghaire stronghold. There are a couple of young female whippersnappers – untainted by being in government in the run-up to the bailout – who seem to be getting the benign blessing of the party leadership to stand next time out. The constituency, having been reduced to a four-seater, will also be an even tougher battleground than usual for Fianna Fail in the next election.
Mary Hanafin's story encapsulates the dilemmas, hard choices, and the mountains to climb for her party. As it strives for a born-again niche, with the underlying argument that past sins should be forgiven if not forgotten, it desperately needs to revamp its identity in the capital.
Cliched analysis would have it the three great symbols of continuity in Irish life – Fianna Fail, the Catholic Church, and the GAA – have all been affected by a tsunami of social change in recent years. But it is only with the passage of time, the full extent of the near fatal body blow delivered to Fianna Fail in the last election, has become clear. It has left the new leadership with a herculean rebuilding and rebranding challenge.
For its part, the Catholic Church continues with a kind of major repositioning strategy, and while its authority and confidence are badly damaged, it is learning to accommodate a new variation of a la carte religion Irish-style.
Meanwhile, the GAA is undoubtedly adapting the best of the three. The Sky Sports deal was a master stroke on many levels. It modernises its image, and in the longer term, will add lots of cash to the Association's already ample coffers.
But Fianna Fail are finding it the hardest to get into a new groove. Maybe they should bring on board somebody from the church and the GAA for some backroom advice. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, and Croke Park chief, Paraic Duffy, are two nifty operators when it comes to navigating troubled waters...