Dissolution and Rebranding the Only Answer for Fianna Fail?
Deaglán de Bréadún
It’s interesting to be in the People’s Republic of China when there is so much happening at home. Your humble scribe is here to cover the official visit of Taoiseach Enda Kenny for the purpose of promoting trade and investment.
Curiously, at a time when you would expect a Fine Gael leader to be feasting on the discomfiture of the old enemy, Fianna Fail, there seems to be little appetite in the Kenny entourage for that type of triumphalism. Mind you, there are a number of embarrassing Fine Gael references in the Mahon Report as well.
Maybe FG and FF are like one of those married couples who are always fighting but never get divorced because, at the end of the day, they need each other. After all, without Fiannna Fail, how would you define Fine Gael – and vice-versa?
They were born out of the Treaty Split, as we all know. One of these days I am going to sit down and figure out just what that argument was all about. It is buried in the mists of time and even someone with a reasonable grasp of history such as the present writer still finds it hard to comprehend how old friends and comrades could turn around and start killing each other, with the resultant bitterness that lasted for decades.
Much as I admire the work of the great Neil Jordan, he gave a misleading impression in this regard in the Michael Collins movie. Remember where Harry Boland says: “Ah, Mick, you gave up the North!” Then along comes The Wind that Shakes the Barley to perpetuate a similar misconception through the medium of newsreels – these good lefties were let down when the Other Crowd abandoned the Six Counties. (Strange that the IRA in the North mostly took the pro-Treaty side.)
In fact the dispute was about sovereignty and whether the Treaty provided a stepping-stone to freedom or constituted a betrayal of the men and women of 1916, etc.
As always, the old artificer, Eamon de Valera, tried to come up with a formula but it didn’t catch on. But most of those who took up arms against the Free State ended up founding Fianna Fail and taking over the same institution by political means and, indeed, confirming its status as a genuinely-independent entity, not least through the widely-supported and regrettably-necessary policy of neutrality in the second World War (It would have been nice and in retrospect very comforting to be able to take the Allied side, but small states must look to their survival based on the outlook at the time of making the decision to stay neutral.)
The Soldiers of Destiny couldn’t overthrow the Free State by military means so they went in the back door and changed it very substantially in their own image, with “jobs for the boys” as a primary means.
Now it’s all gone sour. There is a line in one of Kevin Boland’s books about the day the party accepted its first substantial cheque from a donor. A political Rubicon was crossed. In the Sixties there was the “Mohair Suit” brigade and Taca (Support), the fundraising organisation. The party started out on the road which led eventually to the Mahon Report and its damning confirmation of so many unsavoury disclosures.
Bertie Ahern was Charles Haughey’s apprentice and, to employ his own kind of malapropism, “the chickens have come home to roast (stet)”. It is a personal tragedy because there is no denying the work he did with Tony Blair on the Northern Ireland peace process. Blair is another politician whose star has dimmed but the work that the pair of them did resulted in lives being saved and the consolidation of the peace: one memory that stands out is of Eileen Paisley embracing Ahern at the opening of the Battle of the Boyne commemoration centre.
That doesn’t make his other activities one whit more acceptable and a very clear line must be drawn. Ireland must move on at long last. Hopefully, a new type of politics is being born, without any trace of the brown envelope and “dig-out” culture.
Is there a case for Fianna Fail or should the party shut up shop? One has to smile at the talk of “rank-and-file” members feeling betrayed by their former leaders. Anyone who joined Fianna Fail knew about the history of the party and it is a little hard to swallow this notion of shifty, cute-hoor people leading doe-eyed purists as innocent as a reindeer in a Disney cartoon.
Nobody will be fooled by a dissolution and rebranding. Better to soldier on (no pun intended), pick up the pieces and focus on the better elements in the party’s history: the good side of De Valera, the achievements of Sean Lemass, the revolutionary introduction of free secondary education, etc. It won’t be easy but it’s a more honest approach than indulging in a bit of public relations flim-flam.
After all, Sinn Fein hasn’t rebranded, nor has it disowned the IRA who did things that make Bertie Ahern look like a pussycat by comparison. And SF are likely to be the real winners in all this, at least in the short term.