Monday 21 October 2019

John Downing: Martin should not forget everything about Ahern's reign

"Spare a thought for Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, whose efforts to resurrect the party’s fortunes are being met with most resistance from within his own ranks" (Photo: Tom Burke)

John Downing

For more than a year before the June 1997 General Election, Fianna Fáil knew who was printing its election posters, who was going to put them up and where those posters were going.

So, 48 hours after then-Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader, John Bruton, had fired the starting gun, all major traffic routes had Fianna Fáil posters. Activists in the Rainbow coalition parties - whose leaders decided the election date - had to follow in Fianna Fáil's wake.

That little piece of "getting their retaliation in first" tells us a lot about the tip-top organisational state of the party in June 1997. There is no evidence to indicate that Micheál Martin's Fianna Fáil is anywhere near the same.

Now, for purposes of this exercise, let's park the less positive legacies of Bertie Ahern, and his extraordinary finances, to Fianna Fáil. Let's just clinically fix on where they were when Mr Ahern took over the party leadership in November 1994. It's well worth doing because we will see that the party was not just down, it was also rather battered and divided. And many seasoned observers confidently predicted it could not rise again. After Albert Reynolds' ill-judged foray into the General Election in November 1992, Fianna Fáil had been reduced to 68 TDs. A series of truly extraordinary circumstances had driven them on to the opposition benches without a general election and "resurrected" John Bruton, deemed finished as Fine Gael leader, as the surprise Taoiseach.

More surprising still, Bruton's three-party rainbow coalition was working, the international economic trends were favourable and significant EU funds were coming on stream. Bruton & Co were formidable foes and as events showed they were only barely ousted in that 1997 election.

Ahern's Fianna Fáil faced an uncertain future, party people who would be household names in the next decade were unknown, and the party was deeply divided. There were residual Haugheyites, anti-Haugheyites, disappointed Reynolds supporters and several new faces. Ahern's first frontbench in opposition melded those discordant forces. Many in the frontbench were strident, at the time they were deemed too strident. But they made their mark. Like all parties in opposition they honed and drafted eye-catching policies.

In Justice, John O'Donoghue came up with "zero tolerance" and later the blueprint to take on organised crime.

As tax revenues improved, Fianna Fáil framed policies which spoke of the need to cut taxes. They also improvised. The late former Agriculture Minister, Joe Walsh, was less than pleased to be social welfare spokesman for a stint. But he found an academic who guided him into doing a passable job.

At this point, we can hear the critics rightly pointing out that we were taking our first steps towards phoney boom and very real bust.

But that was to come later, especially in the years 2002 onwards.

Let's remind ourselves that we are talking about a once great political movement, Fianna Fáil, now in a very parlous state.

The reality is that Ahern's 30-month period as leader of the opposition was one of building and preparation. Not one fraction of this has happened in Martin's Fianna Fáil.

This is the main opposition party which has failed to win one of six by-elections at a time when the Government was wildly unpopular. There is no ducking this one - Ahern landed two by-elections on the same day in April 1996.

There are many reasons for disliking the Ahern comparisons because of later events. In that event try a similar exercise in relation to Enda Kenny.

Same lessons - longer timespan.

Irish Independent

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