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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: February 28, 2009 @ 11:14 pm

    Oliver Cromwell and the Fianna Fáil Ardfheis

    Deaglán de Bréadún

    Someone asked me what the Fianna Fáil ardfheis was like. “It was like a very large country wedding,” I replied. And it’s true. The kind of people one meets at such occasions – and this is a factual observation, not a derogatory remark – are like  distant, dimly-recalled relatives from somwhere down the country who come to life from the pages of a photograph album at a family wedding or funeral.

     There wasn’t the festive atmosphere of a wedding at Citywest today. The economic situation is too serious for that. There was a lively exchange between Finance Minister Brian Lenihan and a highly-articulate party activist in a fringe meeting on the economy that brought the proceedings above the usual perfunctory level you often get at party conferences.

    I covered a debate about foreign affairs in which I have had a more than  passing interest. Unfortunately someone had timed it to take place during the rugby international between Ireland and England. Even so, there were people in attendance but you wondered if they were just waiting for the Main Event.

    That, of course, was the party leader’s address. Tánaiste Mary Coughlan read out a script and then there was a group of three tenors – practically a mandatory feature at public events nowadays. Actually, they sang extremely well and looked the part, but their version of “The Town I Loved So Well”  was so slow it turned into a bit of a dirge – and that is one of my favourite songs.

    We all wondered who the “warm-up” person would be. Brian Cowen himself was a dab hand at that particular gig in his day. Remember his quip about the Progressive Democrats – “If in doubt, leave them out” – which brought the house down some years back. The late Brian Lenihan Sr used to be a good warm-up speaker too, in his day.

    There was an almost-inaudible groan from the media section when Noel Dempsey took the stage. No disrespect to the guy, but Billy Connolly he ain’t. However, he turned out to be surprisingly lively. He would be the first to admit that he doesn’t “do” humour but it was a tub-thumping oration that had the crowd on its feet.

    He insisted that, just because FF people hang out with bankers (or used to do) it didn’t mean they should be bracketed with the bad boys in that category, whom he rather startlingly compared to Oliver Cromwell, although even Cromwell wasn’t in it for the money.

    Brian Cowen’s speech was workmanlike rather than inspirational. At least that’s how it came across in the hall. Apparently on TV it worked much better and that, of course, is what counts.

    The most interesting thing about it was what he did  not say. I don’t think he even mentioned the Opposition. Was this lordly indifference or an implicit olive branch? Frankly, if the two sides of the Dáil chamber don’t unite on certain issues, it is hard to see how the parliamentary system can survive this crisis with any credibility.

    There was a big crowd, despite some predictions that the attendance would be way down. The age-profile was high, even higher than usual, which must be a bit worrying for the party, with elections due on June 5th.

    • I think it’s important you have mentioned the tone of Dempsey’s speech. It was very much aimed at party members, I don’t think he would of had the nerve to have delivered it live to the nation.

      The exact quote from Dempsey is:

      “The fact is that a small number of sophisticated money manipulators endangered the economic survival of our people.
      There is no parallel in history for the damage they have done to this nation – except perhaps Cromwell. And even Cromwell was motivated by reasons other than personal gain.”

      That’s taken from the script provided by Fianna Fáil after the leader’s address.

      He also said, and sorry for the long comment, but I think it’s noteworthy

      “Brian Cowen has spent the last few months delivering in a dire situation. He has watched, across the floor of the house, the Opposition Parties not delivering. Not delivering principled opposition. Instead they have delivered cheap dramatics – not caring about the consequences of what they’re saying.

      Fine Gael and Labout will some day regret the way they danced around a wounded economy. They will some day regret the way they happily spread a dangerous message to the world about a country they claim to love and serve.

      They have not served Ireland well in the last few weeks.”

      It was “weeks” that did it for me.

      The whole speech could have been summed up with

      “We were in charge, but sure you can’t expect us to know what was going can you? Nah, you can’t blame us for the bankers and developers making a boo-boo. Wasn’t us!”

      Sometimes I wonder about that lot…

    • steve white says:

      well considering who died the other day.

    • Fergal says:

      “if the two sides of the Dáil chamber don’t unite on certain issues, it is hard to see how the parliamentary system can survive this crisis with any credibility.”

      To be clear, you are saying that if the opposition continue opposing, it’s time to abandon democracy?

    • Paul says:

      Deaglan,

      Even more than specifics the atmosphere you describe is interesting.

      To me it conjures up the impression of a congregation of people whose best days are behind them, who have retreated to the safe haven of their immediate environs because the bigger picture is difficult to fathom.

      The only part of the Ard Fheis I saw was a delegate interviewed for the news bulletin as Gaeilge, who stated Brian Cowen was doing jab an-mhaith, which prompted me to ask my flatmate the question: ‘Where the hell do these people come from?’

    • Deaglán says:

      Fergal: In relation to my comment that, “if the two sides of the Dáil chamber don’t unite on certain issues, it is hard to see how the parliamentary system can survive this crisis with any credibility.”

      You ask: To be clear, you are saying that if the opposition continue opposing, it’s time to abandon democracy?

      My response: I think there is a case for a united front on particular measures, just as there was in 1987 with the Tallaght Strategy. That didn’t spell the end of democracy now, did it? Also, in the last War, Britain had a national government and I think we had a large measure of cross-party unity. It was necessary to confront an emergency that arose. Normal Government and Opposition democracy resumed when the War was over. In Britain the Tories were turfed out and probably the most socially-progressive government in history took over. In Ireland, there was a change of government in 1948 and FF were put out for the first time.

      There are times when the normal conventions may have to be set aside for the common good. What would concern me would be the basis for that cross-party unity. If it is a common front to hit the poor and underprivileged, I don’t think that would be very progressive. If, on the other hand, it was a common front on an agreed programme that was fair, equitable and balanced, that would have to be taken seriously. It would be confined to the measures required to deal with the current horrific crisis and would not have to extend to social issues/the liberal agenda or what’s left of it, etc.

      What could be damaging to democracy would be a kind of tit-for-tat politics, opposition for its own sake combined with government bloodymindedness that failed to take account of the common welfare. If we don’t hang together we may hang separately, no?

      I am not advocating a cross-party united front because it may still be possible to deal with the crisis whilst preserving the present arrangement. But it is beginning to look more doubtful every day.

      What’s your solution Fergal, ‘cos we sure as hell need one, and fast.

    • Joanna Tuffy says:

      Deaglán,

      Fighting a world war and being in Government during a recession are very different. Are there national governments in other countries affected by recession today? Would it really be a good thing for an opposition party to support economic policies it disagreed with? It is not like the Government needs the votes of the opposition to govern. The Tallaght Strategy was at a time when the Government was a minority Government. It is not a minority Government now. It is not the case that the parties in opposition do not on any issue support the Government. Fine Gael and Sinn Féin supported the guarantee of the banks. Only my party, Labour did not support that particular measure. Bills pass in the Dáil and Seanad all the time that are unopposed. A national government when we have a majority government, not only is not necessary, but would not as Fergal points out be good for democracy. This recession could last for maybe 10 years – who knows. And people will need to be able to decide when the next election comes up whether they agree with the present government’s approach and the ideology that underpins that approach or if they want to try a different approach and a different ideology. Looks like people are already starting to think that way and voter preference may already be realigning. A national government or something along the lines you are suggesting may only serve to prop up a party in Government whose ideology is no longer what this country needs and increasing numbers of voters no longer want.

    • Sean says:

      The Government had a majority of 10 in divisions on the pension levy. It can ram through any changes it likes. Time to get on and take the hard decisions. Apologists for FF talk about the opposition. The opposition has no power. The buck stops with the government. FF supporters wish to insulate the party from criticism. If it were a MINORITY government an argument could be made for an agreement with the opposition. What is stopping the government bringing in an emergency budget NEXT WEEK. The short answer is political cowardice.

      The idea of a Tallaght Strategy Mark 2 does not make sense. The government has the votes. If it cannot take the decisions it should get out and the leave the appalling mess to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). It is time for a new budget NOW not next October. Failure to act now will finish FF for 20 years. Talk about the opposition is a red herring.

    • Deaglán says:

      Good, robust defences of the existing dispensation, Joanna and Sean!

      What you are leaving out is what is happening outside parliament. There seems to be little or no appetite for the medicine that is required to fix this sickness or at least to prevent it from spreading. We could end up with serious social disorder. In that context, a measure of unity from the parties in the Dáil could be important in securing broad popular consent for necessary austerity measures. Tit-for-tat politics and disedifying parliamentary infighting could serve to justify a selfish approach by particular interest groups. After all, there was unity on the peace process which was a programme to bring an earlier crisis – not economic but very threatening in its own way – to an end.

      I am not saying we need it today or tomorrow but it might well be necessary and should not be ruled out. The crisis we are facing is too deep. I felt Garret FitzGerald and Eamon Gilmore were saying something similar during the week but did not get a very positive response.

    • Fergal says:

      What specific issues are the government faced with that they can’t deal with because the parliamentary system won’t let it? They have a majority, don’t they? Let them use it, and let the opposition do their job too.

      You misrepresented my comment re democracy. Of course Tallaght Strategy didn’t damage democracy. What I was referring to was your own assertion that the parliamentary system would lose credibility – what are you suggesting then? A putsch?

      There was me thinking that politics was important and had to do with running the country – turns out it’s just a bit of fun and can be suspended when things get serious.

    • Deaglán says:

      No, I’m not suggesting a putsch, but serious disorder along the lines of what happened in Greece and Thailand is a very real possibility down the road.

      Everyone in the Dail knows what the problem is and that drastic action must be taken. There is a lack of acceptance in the wider nation however. When you see the police taking part in protest marches or organising their own protest march you know something is deeply amiss. (Garda overtime is in the Department of Finance’s sights.)

      There is a problem of consent. People are not willing to make the sacrifices that are necessary. In normal times this would be a healthy reaction but in the current crisis could prove fatal to us all.

      In that context, adversarial politics may need to be put to one side with regard to the economy. It’s not a question of the Government’s current majority but the state of mind of the populace.

      The Government has been quite rightly attacked for a lack of leadership. It has failed to persuade people that (a) the cuts are necessary and (b) they are being implemented fairly.

      But there needs to be leadership from the Opposition as well. Taking advantage of the crisis to score political points againt the Government serves to legitimise the Naysayers and the “I’m Alright Jack” brigade. That’s why, I assume, Gilmore has reiterated his offer of talks with the Government about proposals and solutions for solving the country’s economic problems.

      Another, related issue which should be mentioned is that Social Partnership has effectively sidelined the parliamentary process for some 20-odd years now. Maybe if the Opposition parties took part in a socila pact, it might make the Dail more relevant in the public’s eyes. That could be very good for democracy.

      As regards the Dail’s credibility, tell me: how much credibility do you think it has at the moment?
      .

    • Ray D says:

      Sacrifices, what sacrifices? There have been no sacrifices at all. Mr Cowen said over the weekend that pay cuts in the public sector MAY be necessary. What about the levies he brought in last September for everyone? And the new pay levy – up to 10% – for public sector workers alone. In FF-speak these are not pay cuts or sacrifices and can be ignored when public sector pay cuts (and no doubt PAYE tax increases) are introduced later by this Government. We are living in a FF Wonderland where words mean what FF say they mean.

      Another example was Micheál Martin’s assertion on Friday’s news that the Government will continue to govern under the mandate given in 2007 (that mandate gives no basis for current policies) and the stressing by him, despite repeated questioning, that the Government was completely and totally blameless in relation to Ireland’s meltdown, which is worsening by the week and is essentially due to the fact that we have revenue of 37 Bn and expenditure of 60Bn plus.

      With such arrogance and denial, I would not be so sanguine as to say that there will not be a revolution or uprising of sorts here.

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      Deaglán, that WWII national government wasn’t actually a broad based sharing of ministries or power.

      I think it is instructive that Brian Lenihan said that the opposition hadn’t supported any government action when it came to the division bell. Has he forgotten his own banking bill already?

    • Joanna Tuffy says:

      Deaglán,

      The Dail and our political system has enough credibility that people are looking around and thinking the opposition might be an alternative – hence the poll results over the past few weeks.

      You are right about the social partnership but the answer is not the Dail taking part in a social pact (and I am not arguing against such a thing if it is possible) – it is the Dail being given back its powers and the time to hold the Government to account.

      I think Fergal is right. You seem to be suggesting “the end of politics”. That might not be your intention but it is coming across in what you have to say.

      As regards social unrest – I hope what happened in Greece and Thailand does not happen here but if it did it would reflect very badly on our Government not the opposition. Marches and protests and strikes in themselves are not a bad thing, they are signs that we live in a democratic society where people can express their dissent.

      You wrote only recently of the good old days of the late 1960s when dissent was in the air. Why is dissent such a bad thing now? I was on the ICTU march and there was good humour, a sense of solidarity, there were people old and young and from the public and private sector. It is my impression from speaking to people over the past few weeks that there is appetite for unpalatable medicine. It’s just that many people don’t agree with the prescription of the current government. I know that there are a lot of people who don’t see beyond their own circumstances, but I am not as sure as you seem to be that those people are in the majority. One way of expressing a desire for change between elections is by way of marches, protests and strikes and surely that is a healthy thing at a time when we need the hope that contemplating that there could be an alternative to the present political approach brings.

      Joanna

    • Paul says:

      Deaglan,

      In light of events at the Fianna Fail Ard Fheis, I proposed the suggestion of a national protest: a demonstration, offering every citizen capable of making the decision to stand completely still for one minute on midday of a set-date. Perhaps then an accurate reflection of the national collective attitude toward Dail credibility can be established.

      In this suggestion I’m not predicting a hypothetical outcome. It may be the case that people are willing to accept the existing set-up. But I doubt it…

    • Deaglán says:

      Dan, There was a national government in Britain. Here in Ireland there was cross-party agreement and solidarity on Ireland’s neutrality with only James Dillon in disagreement. There was healthy inter-party rivalry, but agreement on the fundamentals. That is what we probably need now (although I would enter as a caveat that “the devil is in the detail”) and, to be fair, I think that’s what Eamon Gilmore and Garret FitzGerald are suggesting.

      Joanna: The Dáil is holding the Government to account day and daily, much to the discomfiture of Brian Cowen on the Nine O’Clock News! It’s as though he can hear the Government’s poll ratings clunking to the bottom as he endures another torrent of Opposition abuse (or constructive criticism, depending on your point of view).

      But with respect, I don’t think it is good enough to shrug your shoulders and say that, if the social order collapses, it’s all the Government’s fault. Dissent is good and healthy, provided it remains within the bounds of legality. The marches up to now have been exemplary models of good behaviour and good humour. I am sure all responsible people hope that remains the case and that the lads in the scarves (see earlier blog discussion) and the people who attacked the “Love Ulster” march don’t get a look in. It’s not the same as the late ’60s when the Vietnam War, university bureaucracy and civil rights were the issues, although in retrospect I think the Burntollet march in the North was an unwise provocation, having supported it at the time. This is not hardening of the arteries but a measured assessment of the situation with, of course, the benefit of hindsight.

      As regards the Dáil, this institution that, some people suggest, doesn’t do what it says on the tin: I know that FF in the past have pocketed opposition support (cf. Tallaght Strategy) and sailed on regardless. They will of course do the same in the present situation if the Opposition let them away with it. It’s a challenging dilemma, but the country must come first and many would agree with the principles espoused by your party leader – wouldn’t you?

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      If it is that the country must come first (and I agree it is) then surely that means the Taoiseach of the day should accept that he must go to the people and outline his programme and seek their endorsement for it.

      As for the national governments in the UK, which is what most people have in the back of their minds when talking about this: They were mostly conservative governments with one or two from other parties and had their origins in the inability of the Labour government under Ramsay McDonald being able to agree on a course of action. Even the war government was mainly conservative.

      All this talk of national government is undemocratic, the government no longer has a mandate for its current policies as they are the opposite of that manifesto for which they received votes. Fact is a FG/Labour/Green government if it were formed were people to swap support would also be lacking in legitimacy.

      If we lack the time for an election, how is it that we have the time to wait until the autumn for new budgetary measures? Every day that passes with no action from the Government proves that we could have easily held an election in the time that has passed.

    • Joanna Tuffy says:

      So should we let them away with it, or should we oppose them?

      (I think I kind of know what you mean by “let them away with it” before you correct me above!)

      I agree with the principles espoused by my party leader and I would be surprised if he would sacrifice those principles in deciding what measures should be supported and what measures should be opposed.

      Joanna

    • Malcolm Doak says:

      Noel Dempsey’s entry speech (no, it was a diatribe) regarding Fine Gael and Labour dancing around a wounded economy was broadcast at the 8.30pm opening on RTE1. He had no mandate to say that. It just illustrates the polarised mindset FF sit at. The FF conference should have served the public as a State of the Nation address. FF are ignoring our democracy.

      What planet are FF on? They are walking themselves into a cul de sac surrounded by their black ministerial cars. One day there will be a social uprising, if not certainly a massive reaction denying FF the June elections. Maybe the Garda drivers should throw all ministerial car-keys into a bowl in that cul de sac. Hand the keys over to a new FG/Labour government, or to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

      As for the petrol/diesel in those cars, pass that issue onto the Greens; they have only room for such aspects, under their narrow selfish remit. At least when the PDs were in government, they governed with FF. The Greens seem to think they should only concern themselves with their own narrow focus.

      In reality there is no coalition, just two very poor teams of suits at the cabinet. We need a government that is integrated AND free of quangos.

      And then there is the imagery of a defeated Bertie Ahern in that audience on Saturday night, back from his travels. He is to run for the Presidency it seems. Good grief, that is a worry………. When I read the Financial Times on the weekends it is then when I really get worried for our country. Move over FF and never come back.

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      My mistake on the UK government. I was confusing my memory of the initial war government with the war coalition which was more broadly-based. That’s what I get for basing my knowledge on the likes of Alan Clark and his Tories and the Nation State.

    • Joanna Tuffy says:

      Just an addendum. On Dan’s point and your reply the World War 2 Government in Britain was a coalition government.

    • Steve K says:

      The Government has been quite rightly attacked for a lack of leadership. It has failed to persuade people that (a) the cuts are necessary and (b) they are being implemented fairly.

      (a) is true and (b) is not.

    • Patrick Hennessy says:

      Just one additional point to this interesting, albeit depressing, thread. If one follows the international news daily what you see is growing evidence of a serious global economic collapse. For example listening to Martin Wolf, Chief Economist at the Financial Times, yesterday on CNN on the global crisis was mind-boggling. There is nowhere to run to, to emigrate to for jobs, to safely invest money, etc., etc.

      Ireland is somewhere close to the bottom of an abyss in a collapsed global economy. We may have to spend a generation crawling out of that abyss.

      I think that calls for a national Government rather than the political tribalism in evidence at the Ardfheis last weekend.

      It is time for patriotism not politics, and frankly the party of patriotism, FF, seems to have no sense of it. Numbers aside, just how far can a party fall?

      We need a statesman at the helm (not just a brainy politician) and elected TDs of all parties who are prepared to put their country before their political careers. I see neither. Is that too negative?

      Patrick

      Bangkok

    • Deaglán says:

      Dan, As a Pol Corr I would obviously love the rough and tumble of an election but it would be a serious distraction at the present time from the economic issues that are squeezing us by the throat. We do have the Locals and Euros on June 5th, not to mention the by-elections, and I am sure the people will register their views. When the Govt majority starts unravelling, that’s when we shall have the general election. (Holding tight these days, I notice.)

      I am not advocating a national government but there may be a case for cross-party unity on certain issues, e.g., taxation. I am sure, Joanna, that your party leader will be very careful about the detail of any pact he might agree with FF. But I wonder will we end up with an FF-Lab govt after the next election anyway?

      Steve K: I am not saying the cuts are being implemented fairly, my point is that the Government has not persuaded the punters that this is the case. Anyway, I don’t think the punters want to be persuaded at this stage. They are still on a learning curve.

      I was reading some of the coverage from 1987 when C.J. Haughey and Alan Dukes sang from the same hymn-sheet. Everyone was in despair then, too. And a few years later the Celtic Tiger bounded onto the scene. No wonder they say capitalism is cyclical.

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      Deaglán, the difference in 1987 was FF in the form of McSharry were substantially implementing the FG budget that had caused the collapse of the FG/Lab coalition. It would have been completely hypocrisy for FG to basically oppose the policies they had themselves attempted to pursue. That we’re all surprised at this just shows how low the standard FF set for the nation really is. I recall from this year’s Ard Fheis a speaker on the Saturday morning speaking in opposition to any form of residential property tax. If Brian Lenihan brings one in come the Autumn do you think she will resign from FF? Of course not, that was merely something she said at a time that was convenience for her and to imply any real commitment to it as an idea.

    • Joanna Tuffy says:

      Deaglán,

      An election is 3 weeks or so (half of the time give to our recent Dail recess). The steps that need to be taken to rebuild our economy could take years. There is a lot to be said for allowing the people to have a say now in deciding who should lead us to recovery and how. Would that really be such a distraction? In an election there could be a real focus on what policies and philosophy distinguish the different parties and what is at stake in choosing the approach of one party over another. That is what happened in Britain after the war, Labour went to the electorate on what it stood for. Its manifesto at the time declared the party “socialist and proud to be socialist” and it went on, as you point out, to be a most progressive government and to establish the NHS. In my view, we are at a juncture now that is more similar to Britain after the war in 1945 than to Britain at the start of the war in 1940. Now is the time to start rebuilding and to build a different type of economy for a society that has different values, just as the British Labour Party set about in 1945.

      With great respect to you, I don’t shrug my shoulders at the prospect of the type of social unrest you fear. My fear is that at this key time in our history we will miss an opportunity to do things differently.

      Joanna

    • Deaglán says:

      Thanks Joanna, it is gratifying to see a busy TD burning the midnight oil to respond to my comment. Your first paragraph is a good piece of writing too.

      I think we probably will have an election fairly soon because I am not sure the Government can keep its nerve. They are showing signs of serious strain – and no wonder.

      As you say, the campaign would last three weeks or so but then you would presumably have the horse-trading and uncertainty afterwards. As I said, I expect Labour to go into coalition with either FG or FF. It is my impression that the right-wing tendency in FG’s message has been toned down a bit of late: more Richard and less Leo.

      Since we have the June 5th elections and since there may well be a general election soon enough afterwards, I don’t see the need to dissolve the Dáil right now. It would send a bad message to the international financial community. “Political crisis in Ireland as economy collapses” – can’t you just see the headlines in the Herald Tribune and the Financial Times?

      I also believe there will probably be cross-party unity but, as in the case of Lisbon, it may very well be too late to have any impact on public opinion. I’m not sure the crisis can be resolved if FF are in opposition – should they take a hostile approach, life would be impossible for the government of the day. That’s fatalistic but also realistic. It’s like – in another context – De Gaulle being the only one who could pull out of Algeria.

      That’s all from Radio Nostradamus for now!

    • The Reverend Ban thee Buddhas says:

      A national government is unconstitutional.The present government, awful though they are, have a mandate to govern. The opposition is there to oppose and still is, even in times like these. The USA have a fine statesman at the helm and they have a patriotic opposition who are not rushing to agree with every word he says, that’s because they are the opposition not the cheerleaders’ association of republicans for Obama.T here is a difference between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael: Fine Gael are more fiscally prudent and less in bed with vested interests, that’s good enough to go on with. Talk of a National Goverment is nonsense,. We either plough on with this shower the people themselves elected or have a general election and sack them

    • Patricia says:

      Interesting. You make a superb point.

    • Mike says:

      You made some good points there. I did a search on the topic and found most people will agree with your blog.

    • Michelle says:

      Very fair article.


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