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John Drennan: It's hell in the trenches for Soldiers of Destiny

EVEN before the Sunday Independent's Millward Brown/ Lansdowne poll showed Fianna Fail slipping behind Sinn Fein it was clear that unforgiven, indeed, is the party which, when it comes to its core Republican vote, finds that the candidate competing with Martin McGuinness is a 72-year-old stumbling career senator who makes the former US presidential candidate Bob Dole look like a habitual drinker at the fountain of youth.

Micheal Martin might have laughed through gritted teeth when, prior to the summer, I suggested Eamon O Cuiv rambling on about 'following in de footsteps of de grandfather' in a rain-drowned field in Oughterard would be the perfect Fianna Fail presidential candidate.

Poor Micheal isn't laughing anymore.

Mind you, some political parties don't deserve to be forgiven.

In better times for Fianna Fail, had 'Dancing' Labhras, dared to cheek a leader like Haughey he would have been called a string of unmentionable names and told 'there's the f****** window, now jump out of it."

It is easy to forget that after the unprecedented three general election wins in a row, the plan was that this would be the year where Bertie was going to retire and, like Dev, take his rightful place as Ireland's President.

That might once have been the plan, but as we dispassionately observed the deathly state of Fianna Fail in its Maldron Hotel think-in, it was clear the party is now living in the political equivalent of the Gothic world of Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman.

If you have not read the tale, the central character is an amoral eccentric who, though dead, thinks he is still alive and who, for his sins, is condemned to a sinister hell where he eternally repeats the same futile actions because as part of his punishment he has no memory of those previous experiences.

The bad news for Fianna Fail is that unlike the protagonist in The Third Policeman who only suffers one variant of Hell, there is no end to the nightmares the party faces.

The one which currently most exercises Fianna Fail is the possibility that, over the next five years, like Collins, Griffith and the Black and Tans in Beggars Bush in 1922, Enda and Eamon will turn up in Dublin Airport to wave goodbye to the Troika.

After that it will be off to the Dail for Enda's 'Ireland, a Republic once again speech', and then on to the 'victory over the IMF election' and that won't be good news for Fianna Fail.

The most curious feature of last week's think-in was how it reminded us of the extent of the decline and fall of the Soldiers of Destiny.

At a sparsely attended dinner the hierarchy tried to improve the mood by hiring a harpist, but the plaintive tinkling only served to drape the ghastly repast in an atmosphere that was eerily redolent of Joyce's The Dead.

The think-in might once have resembled some medieval feast but this was more like a refuge in some rural wilderness where a storm has driven a disparate group of travelling salesmen who do not know each other to seek sanctuary.

As the scattered souls attempted to make the best of things, the spectral nature of the scattered bouts of laughter, accentuated by the emptiness of the bar, was appropriate -- for this was a gathering which was dominated by ghosts.

A year earlier, the heady sense of madness that seized the damned Fianna Fail crew appeared to be informed by a wild desire to drive the degraded hulk even faster towards the gathering rocks.

But even as doom approached, Fianna Fail retained a certain dingy grandeur. Last week all that myth had been replaced by the sort of existential pathos associated with Alan Partridge.

Oh, and speaking of Partridge, here comes poor Micheal Martin sidling into the room like a thin curate who has to contend with a poor parish and a mean monsignor.

It is difficult to dislike poor Micheal, but, the bad news for Fianna Fail is that the ideological bankruptcy of a leader who has been unable to show that the party is different in any way to Fine Gael, means that under his leadership it is merely the Government's Carping Little Echo (CLE).

The arid politics of CLE means we can hardly blame those desolate veterans for their nostalgic sighs about the glory that once was 'the bar lobby'.

Yet the yearning for the days of Cowen is another example of how Fianna Fail has still utterly failed to analyse the reasons for its current parlous state.

Bertie Ahern may be the designated scapegoat of choice -- and the party is correct to be unforgiving about a leader who turned a national movement into a franchise for his insatiable vainglorious ego.

However, the party's willingness to forgive Brian Cowen ignores the one critical fact that ultimately Bertie's greatest sin was Cowen. In fairness to Mr Ahern, life can be difficult when your Finance Minister is a sole trader.

The inability, however, of Cowen to prioritise the interests of the State above those of the party, and its builder and banking friends, sowed the dragon's teeth of our current chaos long before Mr Cowen dragged himself into the Taoiseach's office with all of the enthusiasm of Shakespeare's sulking schoolboy.

Sadly, the choice of a man who did not have the ability, nor patriotic character, to curb the egotism of Ahern, nor to confront his own flaws, was all too symptomatic of the vast carelessness that was such a defining characteristic of the final years of Ahern.

But though the untrammelled egotism of a Taoiseach destroyed a country and a national movement, the greater crime was committed by Mr Cowen whose spoilt prince status meant he did not have the moral centre to confront his own incapacities by refusing two jobs he was manifestly unfit to do.

The districtFianna Fail has been banished to is the epicentre of the worst example of the sort of Ireland they built.

Nearby, the mood music is set by the sound of workers nailing shuttering on to the busted windows of yet another vacant Nama development.

When it comes to the rest of the area, astonishingly, every cubic building, with its cheap cedar and faux marble facades, is ugly. If we were going to be made bankrupt it would have been nice if we had not built such an ugly country, but these busted buildings and weed-strewn paths resemble an Eastern European capital after the fall of communism.

On one level the bleak landscape is an appropriate location, for it is a perfect mirror of the state of the petrified Fianna Fail party.

Such now is the reduced status of the lost political children of Fianna Fail that it is Sinn Fein, as distinct from the premiership players of Fine Gael and Labour, which is Fianna Fail's political nightmare.

As the party shivered at the prospect of a Martin McGuinness presidential candidacy, and quaked even further when Labhras O Murchu launched his quixotic bid, when it comes to the economic Chappaquiddick Fianna Fail swam away from, the siren voices best placed to seduce a fearful electorate are the 'burn the bondholders' wing of Sinn Fein.

Nothing epitomised the appalling future being faced by the Fianna Fail CLEs more than the recent vignette where Pearse 'Babyface' Doherty talked angrily about the €3bn- a-year promissory note we will have to pay just to sort out the Anglo debacle.

The cruel truth is that those billions will place yet another millstone around the already tenderised necks of this busted party.

Back to Celtic Tiger hubris, as the doe-eyed leader slopes off to bed for his cocoa, the scarcely noted absence is all too typical of how poor Micheal keeps getting it not quite right.

We don't expect Fianna Fail leaders to drink themselves into a drunken stupor these days, but at this dry wake Mr Martin might have been better to have had a few pints. If his radioactive party is to regain its morale it needs a leader who can offer more than an ethos of tidy frugality.

In truth it needs a lot more, for the legacy where Fianna Fail, and the various cuckoos that occupied its nest, built a country of ghost estates where people do not want to live is a damnable one.

Mind you, as in the best of those morality plays, the Fianna Fail children are paying for the sins of their neglectful fathers.

In The Third Policeman, the circle of hell is defined as something that 'by nature is interminable, repetitive and very nearly unbearable'.

As Fianna Fail picks a nervous way through the debris left by its electoral meltdown the party, deservedly, knows how that feels.

Sunday Independent