| 9.6°C Dublin

Medb Ruane: Fianna Fáil sit at a crossroads -- and Micheál needs a right turn

As Taoiseach Brian Cowen says goodbye to the country, Fianna Fáil's version of David Brent may insist that he did put people before politics and took 'hard decisions' for 'the common good'. Then off to the Áras he'll go.

His standing down will be a turning point for the Fianna Fáil ethos. No longer a national movement, Fianna Fáil is set to become a run-of-the-mill political party for the first time in almost 80 years.

New leader Micheál Martin spoke passionately about Fianna Fáil. He strode into the general election campaign wielding his charm like a light sabre. "Debate me," he urged Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore. "Forgive us our mistakes," he entreated everyone around.

He spun nostalgic dreams of Fianna Fáil as the party of ordinary men and women, with himself as a case in point -- his family from a respectable working-class background, who went on to third level and beyond, without losing their republican nationalist ideals.

Martin's nostalgia was shared by the other leadership contenders, Ó Cuív, Lenihan and Hanafin, who also envisioned a FF community which was a philosophy as well as a political party, more a way of living than about personal ambition and reward.

If you put the Galway tent on hold for a minute, and forgot about the recent surrender of economic sovereignty, you might glimpse a picture where men and women of no property, as Dev had seen them, found FF to be their natural home.

That sense of FF as bigger than anything else happening for Ireland gripped few outside it, apart from a TV reporter who'd said that leading it was "arguably the most challenging job in Irish politics". Perhaps he'd forgotten the challenges that leading the next Government will bring.

Despite everything, a handful of FFers seemed to think the massive drop in support was a serious but temporary blip. Who knew how the party might turn its fortunes round if they got back to basics and, in Martin's words, found a middle way?

The middle way was really between a rock and a hard place. Much as you may wish Martin well on a personal basis, the scale of the repositioning needed to return FF into even a shadow of its former self was sizeable. His talk about community and republican nationalism recalled Ahern declaring he was a socialist, after a think-in with colleagues at the luxury Inchydoney hotel, where Fr Sean Healy of then-CORI gave the sermon.

But Ahern and then Cowen had found you couldn't be all things to all men, no matter how you spun, how many public sector jobs you invented or how many tax breaks were spread. Nor could you pirouette as a master of economic and growth policies when years in Government proved you didn't know your oats. As for women? FF had always been a manly party, preparing few female candidates and promoting even fewer.

Martin pressed buttons such as political reform, encouraging younger people and women, and other initiatives his party could have made happen years ago. He said that he didn't think Ireland should be a 'laboratory experiment' for how the EU deals with sovereign debt but, despite his fast talking, he and his party looked deeply out of touch.

Pretty as he painted them, the nostalgic pictures of a national movement under FF showed the vast psychological disconnect between FF and the rest of the world. In their heyday, FF had won consistent support from some 45pc of Irish voters. Just as keeping them in power for so long told one story, wanting them out of it tells another.

When Micheál Martin was born in 1960, Sean Lemass was hatching the economic and political plans that brought the country out of the past into a present where industry grew and closer links with Europe were developed. When Micheál was a child, Donogh O'Malley introduced free secondary education and just as he entered his teens, Jack Lynch led Ireland into the EEC.

The party grew accustomed to power. Charles Haughey, Albert Reynolds and Bertie Ahern led it into Government for most of the 22 years after Martin became a TD in 1989.

By then, FF had copperfastened its alliances with major power blocks in Irish society, from the Catholic Church and the beef export industry to the construction sector and the vintners.

Rumours of corruption and political favours never stuck firmly. Ahern in particular encouraged an era of tribunals, which gave the illusion of truth-seeking while keeping the facts at arm's length. When clerical child-abuse scandals became undeniable, he apologised to survivors, while enabling Minister Michael Woods to do a compensation deal that let the orders off the hook.

To his credit, Martin tried to call the Papal Nuncio to task after the Vatican's lack of co-operation with investigations for the Murphy report.

De Valera's men of no property gambled the State away by making property the new patriotism and acquiring it a matter of national pride. Like an endless Late Late Show, Fianna Fáil offered a helicopter, a place in the sun or whatever you're having yourself to everyone in the audience -- until the price became too much to pay.

The party stands at a crossroads where no one is dancing. The rest of the world has walked away.

Indo Review