A mountain to climb


FIANNA FÁIL will hold its 76th ardfheis this weekend in challenging circumstances. Returning to the RDS in Dublin, party leader Micheál Martin has predicted that this membership-friendly event will mark a major milestone in the reform and renewal of the party.

He had better be right. If Sinn Féin has its way, that milestone could become a headstone.

The party has not recovered from last year’s traumatic loss of 58 Dáil seats, after 14 years in government. The fact that many of its ministers refused to face an enraged electorate made matters worse. In spite of that, a sense of entitlement persists within the parliamentary party where a number of TDs and Senators fail to pull their weight and are quietly critical of Mr Martin. There is always grumbling within political parties. If careers are not waxing, they are waning. And few people are more petulant than egocentric politicians who believe their abilities have not been recognised and rewarded.

Mr Martin has devoted much of the past year to touring constituencies and trying to revive the organisation. It was not an easy time in the Dáil, particularly as the incoming Government continued to implement the broad – and unpopular – economic plan set out earlier by Fianna Fáil. A decision not to contest the presidential election also weighed on party morale. To turn that situation around, members are being invited to engage in policy formation. Rather than sit back and observe the traditional procession of senior party figures to an ardfheis podium, delegates are being offered a stage-management-free event. It should be an intriguing exercise.

There has been some talk by Michael McDowell and others about a new political party. A revised property tax and water charges, along with efforts to deal with restrictive and anti-competitive practices within professions and the business community, are likely to deepen the Government’s unpopularity among upper-income earners. Even with generalised resistance to budgetary cutbacks, however, a coherent take-off platform may not exist. The political baggage of the individuals concerned could also prove problematic.

Mr Martin has more pressing problems. The shadow of the Mahon tribunal and corrupt political payments hangs over Fianna Fáil. A new code of ethics and tougher sanctions, including expulsion, are being proposed. If the Mahon report is as damning as expected, early action will follow. Against that background and with a general election four years away, opinion polls should not matter very much.

Yet Fianna Fáil will ignore them at its peril. In the months leading up to the presidential election last year, Sinn Féin made a great leap forward, moving into second place in the political pecking order. It more than doubled its support to 18 per cent in an Irish Times/IpsosMRBI poll. Since then, the party has continued to grow. While that advance has been largely at the expense of the Labour Party and Fine Gael, it has seriously eclipsed Fianna Fáil in public perception and support. Mr Martin is facing a mountain.