Sunday 24 February 2019

Micheal Martin turns a wary eye on that old Ahern Machine

Bertie Ahern is hanging around outside Fianna Fail's door again, and this presents difficulties for the new leader

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin Photo: Arthur Carron
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin Photo: Arthur Carron

Eoin O'Malley

At the 1997 Fianna Fail Ard Fheis, Bertie Ahern made a speech which, without referencing him, must have hurt Charles Haughey. Bertie said: "We will not tolerate any deviation from the benchmark of honour at local level or in Leinster House, be it in the past, present or future. No one is welcome in this party if they betray public trust. I say this and mean this with every fibre of my being. We will write new ethics standards and independent enforcement into the law of the land."

Bertie regretted the tone of the speech, admitting later that it was dragged out of him, because "the old reflexes for Haughey remained". While he may have been hurt, Haughey would have appreciated the motive: there was an election due in a few months. No one and nothing was sacred in the pursuit of electoral victory.

Last week, a new Fianna Fail leader clearly signalled that sentimentality still counts for little in Fianna Fail. 'Slab' Murphy must be glad it was Gerry Adams he hung out with, not a Fianna Failer.

When asked for his reaction to the news that a Fianna Fail meeting in Drumcondra had passed a cumann motion inviting Bertie Ahern to rejoin the party, Micheal Martin referenced his statement in 2012.

That statement was a response to the publication of the Mahon tribunal report: "The findings of the tribunal that the explanations it was given were untrue and the amounts involved are very serious and cannot be ignored. No matter how high a member rises within the party and in elected office, they still carry a duty of trust for the members of Fianna Fail and for the people who elected them."

He then announced that he would start proceedings to expel Bertie from Fianna Fail. Bertie resigned first. Martin said last week that nothing has happened between then and now to change his position.

Now if Bertie accepts the invitation to rejoin Fianna Fail, Micheal Martin would have to try to have him removed. Neither man would want that.

Martin will be wary of Bertie taking a role of some sort in Fianna Fail. There were rumours that Bertie had his eyes on Fianna Fail's nomination for the Aras. I assume these are nonsense. The presidency is the preserve of moral narcissists - people who prefer how their words and ideas make them sound and feel, rather than whether their actions are effectual. Bertie was too much of a player to be interested in that type of role.

But as a player, Bertie could be useful to Fianna Fail. He's still well liked by the party loyalists, and he knows the electoral ground game as well as anyone else. I suspect ordinary people no longer remember or care about the details of the Mahon findings. Some will say they do, but they would never vote Fianna Fail. Despite its 'good' election, Fianna Fail still has a Dublin problem. The Ahern Machine could be worth a seat or two on the north side of the city. Those are seats that could make Martin taoiseach.

But this might be what Martin is afraid of. Since Martin became leader, Fianna Fail has introduced several changes to democratise the party. As well as changing how a party leader is elected, one of the most significant changes is the move to one member, one vote.

Though this seems to give some power back to the grassroots, it was designed to take power away from local machines based around an individual TD.

In the past, when you canvassed for a party, you canvassed for the party, not a specific candidate. Bertie might have been the first to set up a parallel organisation within Fianna Fail when he was selected as a sweeper candidate in the Dublin-Finglas constituency in 1977. He knew he didn't have a chance against established Fianna Fail names unless he controlled his campaign, so he set up his own election organisation.

That became the famous Drumcondra Mafia, that knew the position of every lamppost in the constituency, and was willing to move the lamppost for a vote. Others followed, and parties gradually moved to what my colleague Ken Carty called the 'Franchise Model' of parties.

Under this model, candidates brought in their own organisation: canvassers and money, and used the party brand in the same way a franchise owner uses the McDonalds or Supermacs brand.

A problem was that the local TD then could control the party organisation and block challengers. Many TDs became 'quota sitters' - doing enough to keep their seat, but nothing to grow the party beyond that.

The TDs became more powerful but it weakened the party because the organisation was more attached to the local man or woman, and less to the party. When Michael Lowry was forced out of Fine Gael, he took the Fine Gael organisation in North Tipperary with him. It was his to take. Fine Gael still hasn't recovered; it took no seats in Tipperary at the 2016 election.

Though it looks like it is giving back power to the grass roots, the paradox of party democratisation is that it gives much more power to head office - and this is why Martin might be so anxious to keep Ahern out. It doesn't just mean there will be a Drumcondra candidate rather than the one Martin wants, it could mean a return to Ahern's Machine. And that means a loss of control.

If it means a couple more seats for Fianna Fail, that loss of control might be one Micheal Martin is willing to take in the pursuit of victory.

Sunday Independent

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