Chastened Soldiers of Destiny begin the march to renewal and reform

Mon, Mar 5, 2012, 00:00

ANALYSIS:FEW POLITICAL parties have approached an annual convention with such trepidation as Fianna Fáil in the run-up to its 73rd ardfheis over the weekend.

In the three years since the faithful had last gathered, the bottom had fallen out of their world. Last year’s humiliation at the polls had been bad enough, but it also exposed fault lines. The once-peerless cumann system was in tatters and the party was a cold place for younger people and women. But worst of all, its base in urban areas had evaporated (wholly in Dublin).

This would be the first event at which the party could regroup, fess up in public, and move on.

What it needed was a big, young and female turnout at the RDS for its modernisation plans to get through and for Micheál Martin to show strongly in his maiden speech as party leader.

What it didn’t need was an unhelpfully timed Mahon tribunal report, an incipient mutiny in its ranks or for its risky strategy of having no stage management to lead to awkward moments.

As it transpired there was an incident, but Éamon Ó Cuív’s mutinous moment in the middle of the week actually shored up Martin’s authority. His decisive action also went some way in addressing long-standing criticism that he lacked backbone. In fairness to him, Ó Cuív removed the (remote) possibility of an explosive moment at the ardfheis by withdrawing from the election for vice-president (decided by the grassroots members).

Another big imponderable was how to approach the sensitive question of “dissing” former party leaders. Senior party strategists argued that Martin’s first chance to speak directly to an ardfheis – and to the wider Irish public – would have to include an apology for past misdeeds on the economy and also a promise that he would come down hard on anybody criticised in the Mahon tribunal report.

Bertie Ahern was the subject of implied criticism by Martin in his opening speech on Friday night. In what some interpreted as an act of defiance, Ahern arrived at the RDS on Saturday afternoon (driving his own 2008 registered Ford Mondeo). The former leader has been at every ardfheis since 1972 and while the red carpet wasn’t exactly out, a stream of people were anxious to shake his hand and welcome him.

Equally, given his almost reclusive nature since last year, Brian Cowen slipped into the hall through a side door. He appeared bashful when name-checked and given a standing ovation. Cowen sat stoically during that part of the leader’s speech critical of his and Ahern’s handling of the economy without naming them. Fealty to the leader has always been a key Fianna Fáil attribute. It can operate in parallel with the fiercest condemnation; therein lies the ambiguity. Even as he was being criticised, Cowen was being forgiven.

The most important moment for the party was the wording and extent of the apology Martin would deliver. The apology for Fianna Fáil profligacy over a decade was unequivocal. It will draw a line under a situation where the party found itself wrongfooted, and rightly so, every time it sought to take the moral high ground on an issue.

The apology was greeted by a standing ovation and sustained applause from 4,000 delegates. That those numbers turned out gave an indication that the party is not a losing docket. Fianna Fáil took a pasting last year but when the figures are parsed there were some, slight slivers of hope. The party got almost the same percentage share of first preferences as Labour but ended up with half the number of seats.

The weekend augured well for the party as there was a fair quota of younger and female delegates.

More than 2,000 crammed in for the closed session on organisational and ethical reform on Saturday afternoon. The biggest change, a move to a more democratic one-member one-vote, system was vital. The party’s own public representatives had manipulated the old system, creating personal fiefdoms.

In the event the motion was passed unanimously. The other 14 motions on organisation and higher ethical standards were passed with overwhelming majorities.

Another clear sign was the success of motions on same-sex marriage and allowing same-sex couples to adopt. The one hiccup was a rejection of a motion to impose a minimum quota of 30 per cent of female candidates.

The reason given was that the debate took place in the morning with a sparse attendance.

The format change which promised no spinning or stage management was a bit flat. There was no real dissent or awkward moments and seminars, with invited guests, looked like TV debates but without rancour.

Of course, everything plays a supporting role to the leader’s speech. In addition to the apology, there were tricky concepts to deal with. He had to pitch Fianna Fáil into a new space, as a responsible opposition. That meant putting clear blue water between its approach and that of Sinn Féin. It also meant finding a way to criticise or carp at the Government, without seeming cynical.

In the event, he delivered a competent and fluid performance. Martin emphasised renewal, the party’s new phase of humility and deference, but still could manage to describe last December’s budget as the most unfair in recent years. The strongest passages were on education, in his attacks on the Deis cuts, and threatened closure of small schools.

However, near the end, he gave an illustration of responsibility with a reaffirmation of the party’s strong support for the fiscal treaty referendum.

The ardfheis was the party’s first real opportunity and test since last year’s elections. It has had some truly awful weekends in recent years, but this does not rank among them.

The weekend, at least, was a good one and a very good one for the party.

It will be interesting to see how it can build upon it.