FF may shut up shop and seek to re-emerge later
Despite a swift response to tribunal findings, Fianna Fáil may never regain public trust, writes NOEL WHELAN
AT THE MacGill Summer School last July I was asked to speak on the fallout from the previous February’s general election. I focused in particular on the prospects for Fianna Fáil’s survival. Having looked in some detail at the party’s plight I offered the view that the party was as likely to wither or be wound up as it was to survive.
I came to that view not only because of the devastated condition in which the party found itself after the 2011 election, but also because of two major challenges then still facing it. I argued that how the party dealt with the presidential election and how it dealt with what appeared then to be the imminent publication of the Mahon tribunal report would have a significant impact on its prospects.
The party’s handling of the presidential election was very messy. It flirted with high-profile celebrities. It squabbled over whether to run a candidate of its own, and ultimately sat out the contest. The arguments advanced by Micheál Martin for not running a candidate were compelling in the circumstances, but the fact that the party had neither the resources nor the confidence to contest spoke volumes about its weakness.
The day the Mahon tribunal report was published was always going to be a defining moment in Martin’s leadership and another milestone on the tentative journey back to recovery. His response on Thursday was swift in calling a meeting of the officer board and decisive in proposing the expulsion of Bertie Ahern and others from the party membership. Martin and his advisers have had ample opportunity to scenario responses, but even this assured handling is likely to be overwhelmed by the impact of the report’s findings.
What Fianna Fáil is set upon next Friday night is an extraordinary and traumatic course. There is no precedent for an expulsion of this type. One has to go back more than a quarter of a century to find anything approaching its significance.
Twenty-seven years ago, on February 26th, 1985, the Fianna Fáil árd comhairle voted 73 votes to nine in favour of Charles Haughey’s motion to expel Dessie O’Malley for his abstention on a family planning Bill.
Forty years ago, on June 26th, 1972, the Fianna Fáil árd comhairle expelled Neil Blaney in the wake of the arms crisis because of his persistent carping at Jack Lynch’s Northern Ireland policy.
Both Blaney and O’Malley had been contenders for the party leadership in their earlier careers. They each went on to lead new political parties seeking to compete with Fianna Fáil. The Blaney and O’Malley expulsions were dramatic at the time and in their consequences, but the expulsion of Ahern is of an entirely different order.
No political party in these parts has ever expelled a former leader. The question of so doing did not even arise for Fianna Fáil with Charles Haughey. By the time those tribunal reports were published, Haughey had retired off to Abbeville and had let his party membership lapse.
Ahern led Fianna Fáil for 14 of the last 17 years. He has defined the party in the modern age and has done so in a positive and popular way for most of the time he was leader and taoiseach. In distancing itself from Ahern, Fianna Fáil will find itself having to airbrush him from its history. In fact it will be left without a recent history. Every time, for example, party figures talk about the contribution of the party and Ahern to the Northern Ireland peace process, they will also be reminding the electorate about the findings of the Mahon tribunal.
The findings of the Mahon tribunal are so disturbing, the party has no other option either ethically or electorally. On Friday Martin, in addition to seeking Ahern’s expulsion, will also recommend the expulsion of Pádraig Flynn a former Fianna Fáil minister and European commissioner, GV Wright a former TD (and the second Fianna Fáil TD from Dublin North found to have accepted corrupt payments), Don Lydon a former senator, and Finbar Hanrahan a former councillor and three-time Dáil candidate. It is an effort at an ethical clean-sweep but it may not be enough.
The motions to expel Ahern and the others will pass. Any other outcome is unthinkable for Martin or his party. However, the debate on the issue over the next week may yet get stormy, especially if Ahern himself exercises his right of audience before the árd comhairle on Friday night.
Once these expulsions are done, Fianna Fáil will embark on a long climb to regain public trust. It may not manage this task.
In a deliberately provocative passage at the end of my speech in Glenties, I suggested four different scenarios for Fianna Fáil, other than its survival.
The party, I suggested, might just wither, sitting out the presidential election, losing council seats in the next local election, and a few more seats in each of the next three or four general elections.
Second, I proffered that Fianna Fáil might just be subsumed into Fine Gael: a scenario that is more likely if Labour is on the Opposition benches, say after the next election.
Fianna Fáil might alternatively merge with Sinn Féin, a process that could begin as some kind of loose “popular front” type arrangement on transfers.
Finally I floated the possibility of a News of the World solution to Fianna Fáil’s plight: close up shop and seek, after a period, to re-emerge as part of some new entity.
Any of these scenarios seemed improbable last July but no more improbable than a Fianna Fáil collapse might have seemed four years ago.
All scenarios, and in particular the News of the World option, seem more probable after the Mahon findings.