Friday 19 April 2019

Johnny Fallon: The Ard Fheis showed FF still has the numbers ... now it has to get active again

Fianna Fail leader Michael Martin addresses the Fianna Fail Ard Fheis
Fianna Fail leader Michael Martin addresses the Fianna Fail Ard Fheis

THE Fianna Fail Ard Fheis certainly brought out a range of emotions in people over the weekend. There were positives and negatives for FF and their opponents alike. The first thing that was striking about it was the attendance. With 4,500 attendees this was a political conference that will take quite a lot for any of the other parties to rival this year. Given that it came from a party on 17pc of the vote and 19 Dail seats anyone might be surprised. Indeed a time-travelling delegate from 1987 would have been forgiven on first glance for assuming that nothing had changed for FF when casting a cursory glance around the RDS.

They would notice some differences as they looked a little deeper however. The speeches were certainly different and there was a distinct lack of TD’s lining up for photographs with their constituency organisations for the local papers. The reaction to Bertie Ahern was generally polite but still mixed at best. Brian Cowen got a standing ovation, but it remains part of the FF gene that is sympathetic to him, they may feel he got things wrong but they still think his heart was always in the right place and that he got a rough time. That’s quite different to how they are assessing Bertie. Whether or not anyone outside of the party would agree with that is another matter.

The attendance may have been large, but it proved only one thing; that FF still has an organisation, but proof is still needed that FF possesses the capacity internally to know how to use such an organisation. Like an army that was routed FF still has troops scattered around the country awaiting a call and details of how to regroup, but if not moved upon quickly any army can simply begin to disperse. A Sinn Feiner suggested to me that they had to learn how to become ‘activists’ again.

I sat in on a panel discussion for ‘RTE's This Week’ with Charlie Bird and it proved an interesting experience. There was an obvious feeling that the media had treated FF harshly. No doubt there are always particular journalists or voices that are opposed to a particular party, but these days no matter what member of a party I talk to they all believe there is a conspiracy against them. FF, FG, Labour, SF and even independents all complain about it and hope that by saying it things are somehow going to change.

More importantly though, the panel focussed on FF and saying sorry. I argued that FF need to say sorry without ‘buts’ and then articulate exactly what it is they are sorry for. It is in that, that the party can find some semblance of policies for the future. General apologies for ‘things’ and asking to move on is just not enough. I have a three year old son going through that wonderful phase of hitting when he doesn’t get his way. By now he knows that it gets him in trouble so he hits and immediately says ‘sorry sorry’. As parents the next job is to get him to understand what sorry means and to understand why what he did was wrong. The problem with the panel discussion was that too many people wanted to move on and say ‘we said sorry, ok?’

Cllr Mary Fitzpatrick gave a ray of hope suggesting that she understood the need to say sorry and ‘no buts’. Niall Collins TD was not as convinced. He is a strong TD and a guy you would like batting for you, but it was only under some pressure that he moved to suggest what exactly he was saying sorry for, suggesting that a failure to address the property boom was something he really regretted. That point, in my view should have been his starting point. At this stage I wondered if FF really could grasp what people wanted. Then, however, Ogra FF man Eamon Quinlan spoke up. He said it simply and succinctly. He said he was always happy to talk with anyone about the past and the issue was that it had to be about specifics. Perhaps this was a ray of light for a younger generation and here’s why:

In any debate or interview it’s the job of the person questioning to focus on what makes you uncomfortable. Clearly talking about the past makes FF uncomfortable and so long as that remains the case they can expect the issue to be raised again and again. People only stop asking the question when it is clear you are happy dealing with it, that you know your position, that if the conversation never moves on that’s still ok with you. At that stage it’s boring. A long time ago when I was moving and shaking in politics I received a piece of advice that '‘the only thing worth talking about to a person is whatever they want to talk about.' It is advice FF need to listen to.

Understandably, some of the younger generation, of which there were a sizeable number at the Ard Fheis, ask why they should be held accountable or be apologising for Haughey or Ahern? The truth is that nobody is really asking them to account for the past, however, their opinion on it is highly valid and there opinion of what exactly was wrong or right about what FF did in the past is a key factor. Therefore it will always be asked. Eamon Quinlan seemed to be a voice that totally got that. Some others did not but there may be hope.

The big news of the Ard Fheis was Micheál Martin’s apology. Many outside FF might wish it went a lot further but it was a start. The next task for Martin is to lay out exactly what that apology is for, what he has learned, what are the things he is proud of and what decisions they are ashamed of and how they happened. Only by doing that can FF demonstrate that they know what occurred, how it occurred and how to prevent it in the future and boy do we all wish to prevent it happening to Ireland again.

The Ard Fheis was not a rebirth of FF, it was a symbol, a waving of the flag and it is the actions they take in the next few months that will decide whether or not it was a success or if they can rebuild. FF still has big issues and it has a mountain to climb. For most people in the general public the Ard Fheis meant nothing, it was a group of people getting together and nobody cared about it. The thought that an expo encouraging people to emigrate was attracting large numbers and staged right across the road will have been an image that stuck in peoples minds as will the image of Bertie popping in to say hello.

The only other interesting thing I could note was my twitter stream on Saturday night. Just over a year ago as the general election drew to a close tweets about FF were invariably just to poke fun at them, especially from its opponents. The truth was that it was hard to find anyone who really saw anything FF was saying at the close of the election as being a threat or anything other than irrelevant. For most of the year that has not changed much.

This weekend tweets from FF’ers may have been a tad over optimistic, but equally opponents and supporters of other parties were tweeting far more seriously decrying FF and attacking each statement. Not all attacks were without merit that is for sure, but it was equally clear that they were certainly not ignoring FF anymore. Engagement with politics is a good thing whatever about our political leaders, the grassroots of all of our parties are an endlessly interesting bunch.

Johnny Fallon is a poiitical consultant

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