Monday 21 January 2019

There's no future for Fianna Fail in the past

If Eamon O Cuiv is the answer, then the Fianna Fail party must be asking itself the wrong questions

DIVIDED PARTY: Galway West TD Eamon O Cuiv, pictured right with Micheal Martin, is a bit like Ireland’s answer to British Tory Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg, only without the fun
DIVIDED PARTY: Galway West TD Eamon O Cuiv, pictured right with Micheal Martin, is a bit like Ireland’s answer to British Tory Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg, only without the fun

Eilis O'Hanlon

Miriam O'Callaghan suggested on radio last week that the British prime minister has "the world's toughest job".

Theresa May certainly doesn't have it easy, assailed on all sides for her handling of Brexit, but Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin surely has a strong claim on the title too, with every effort at modernisation in his party hampered by an old guard still reluctant to accept that Ireland has moved on a bit since the days when it was the exclusive preserve of those sturdy children, athletic youths and happy maidens so beloved of de Valera. The sort of people, in fact, who might be excited at the prospect of voting for Eamon O Cuiv as next President.

Not that the Galway West TD has publicly indicated his intention to stand. As is the usual way, his name has simply been put forward by sympathetic backers as a way of canvassing likely support. He's de Valera's grandson, after all. What better qualifications could a man have for the highest office in the land other than sharing some DNA with a previous incumbent?

O Cuiv has played no official part in the letter sent by Galway councillor Ollie Crowe, calling on fellow Fianna Fail representatives across the country to throw their weight behind the party's spokesman on rural and community development; but wherever it came from, it's another challenge to Martin's authority after Fianna Fail decided not to oppose Michael D Higgins's bid for a second term.

The party, which was once famed for its iron discipline, has become such a hot bed of individualists that being its leader must be like herding cats some days.

Councillor Crowe has a point when he insists that "our party's role is to run in political races, not turn away from them". Whoever eventually stands, the presidential election will be a big deal. It's arguable that Fianna Fail is mad not to want a piece of it. Likewise, when Ollie says that Mount Street is out of touch with the membership, and Leinster House a "cocoon", who's to gainsay him? The ard fheis decided collectively to stand a candidate for President, and it's rarely a good idea for parties to not even consult their members before making major decisions that go against the wishes of the majority.

But Eamon O Cuiv? Seriously? He may be de Valera's grandson (did we mention that yet, because his supporters really don't want us to forget it, do they?), but if O Cuiv is the answer, then Fianna Fail is asking the wrong question. He's a bit like Ireland's answer to Jacob Rees-Mogg, only without the fun.

The pro-Brexit Tory MP has been amusingly described as the "honourable member for the 18th Century". It's a bit unfair, but it does capture something about his fogeyish character. O Cuiv gives a similar impression of being stuck a few generations in the past.

There's nothing wrong with promoting conservative views on social issues such as divorce, same-sex marriage and abortion. Those opinions are entirely legitimate, and it's not healthy for a democracy that those who hold them are effectively disenfranchised. But even the most conservative of social conservatives needs to find a way to speak to a society which is increasingly hostile to their view of the world, and O Cuiv just hasn't. It's not entirely clear he's ever tried.

The Healy-Raes are the target of sneering metropolitan mockery, but, in their non-conformist, colloquial way, they're actually quite modern, with a superb facility for communication. O Cuiv talks to his base, but he never reaches beyond it, and that's simply not a strategy for winning the Presidency.

No doubt his supporters would paint his candidacy as a return to a less flashy era, when the post went to respected elder statesmen who'd served the country well and cultivated some gravitas along the way. But without meaning to be unkind, O Cuiv doesn't exactly have that distinction. He's held a few ministerial posts, but never scaled the true heights of political office.

And of course, neither had Michael D, but then he had a wider appeal and a cuddlier image, whether deserved or not, to compensate for it. O Cuiv… well… doesn't. All he has is a distinguished family tree, and heredity is no guarantee of greatness.

O Cuiv's appearance at a press conference in Belfast earlier this year at which an announcement was made of a ceasefire by dissident republican splinter group Oglaigh na hEireann (ONH) also cast a question mark over his judgment. Visiting prisoners in jail and holding behind-the-scenes talks is one thing. Sitting there while a statement is read out claiming that ONH's "right" to use violence was "unquestionable", and boasting that their volunteers "remain unbowed and unbroken", is quite another. O Cuiv may still have ambitions to lead Fianna Fail, and to take the party into coalition with Sinn Fein, but he should have been more wary of giving the dissidents a legitimacy they do not deserve. He can put on his CV that he was part of an initiative that brought about a cessation of hostilities, but only time will tell if his generous assessment that "normally when republicans say the guns are silent, they stay silent" will prove correct. Most people wouldn't trust dissidents to give them the right time of day without seeking a second opinion.

There's also the question of whether a pro-life advocate can really be a serious candidate for President in the same year that over 66pc of the electorate voted to liberalise abortion laws.

As Councillor Crowe himself has said, a President needs to "represent Ireland". Does O Cuiv look and sound like modern Ireland? Or does he instead confirm the image of pro-lifers as being at war with modernity? Even if he is anti-abortion, there's no reason to suppose that he would put any of those principles into action as President. Are pro-lifers hoping that he will reject bills allowing for terminations of pregnancy, thereby provoking a Constitutional crisis? Michael D certainly hasn't rejected any bills promoting austerity, despite being lionised by fellow left wing windbags as a rebel.

Even the de Valera connection is a double-edged sword. It gives him brand recognition, but drawing on the legacy of the man who oversaw the 1937 Constitution would be as much of a liability right now as a selling point.

The good news is that the invocation of O Cuiv's name at this moment is probably not a serious bid for the Presidency. It's about bigging up O Cuiv within the party so that he can be an even sharper thorn in Micheal Martin's side than hitherto. It must be a nice ego trip to have his name bandied about, but Fianna Fail's focus needs to be on what's best for Fianna Fail, not what's best for Eamon O Cuiv.

There will be resentment in some quarters if he either fails to gain sufficient support, or else does and is prevented from taking the campaign further, but his followers will just have to get over it. Because if Eamon O Cuiv represents the future of Fianna Fail, then both the party and the country are in even worse trouble than anyone suspected. His support base is nowhere near broad enough to provide the momentum that will put Fianna Fail back into government.

By the time of the next election, the party will have been out of power for the best part of a decade. Following Eamon O Cuiv into a nostalgic wilderness will merely extend that purgatory. But he's not behind this new bid anyway, right?

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss