FF paid high price for Ahern-era sidelining of cumainn

 

Former taoiseach’s popularity and boom masked party’s chronic organisational troubles, writes NOEL WHELAN

WHILE PUBLIC affection for Fianna Fáil may have dissipated, public fascination with the party endures.

One must presume that those who edit newspaper features, commission books or schedule TV programmes know what their audience wants, so the fact that we are set for a veritable festival of Fianna Fáil focus in coming months suggests that the public can’t get enough of the party, its antics and its survival prospects.

Both TV3 and RTÉ are set to give over prime Monday night slots to documentary series on Fianna Fáil and the circumstances of its collapse.

The first of TV3’s three instalments is due to air next week, but it is already making front-page news, thanks in no small part to Bertie Ahern.

Ahern has a tendency toward the occasional gurrier-like turn of phrase. Until now, however, his tongue-lashings have been directed at those he perceived to be his enemies or those of his party.

Ahern had hitherto always – at least in public – espoused only love and respect for the Fianna Fáil grassroots. They were happy to return the love to the man who brought them electoral victory three times in a row. This makes the public rupture between them all the more brutal. In an interview he gave for the TV3 documentary, Ahern denigrated some Fianna Fáil cumann members describing them as “useless good-for-nothings.”

It will not be possible to get the complete context of Ahern’s remarks until the full programme is broadcast.

However, a lengthy extract on TV3 news bulletins last Tuesday suggests that some of his remarks were not directed at the Fianna Fáil membership generally, but at the state of the organisation as he found it in Dublin Central when he first contested there in the mid-1970s.

His ire was directed in particular at a cumann of 12 members assigned to the Seán McDermott Street area, which he characterised as a group good at organising tea parties for themselves but no good at growing the party’s support in the area.

Even more interesting is the fact that Ahern’s unkind description of grassroots members appears to have come when Ursula Halligan put to him a suggestion that I, and I suspect many others, have made to the programme; that is that one of the key reasons for Fianna Fáil’s collapse was the manner in which many of its senior politicians deliberately disorganised the party in recent decades and supplanted it with their personal political machines.

This may explain the irritated tone of Ahern’s response, because he of all people has reason to be sensitive about this suggestion. He clearly seeks to justify the building of his personalised machine by emphasising how bad the party organisation in Dublin Central was at the time.

He may have a point that there were weak cumainn in his constituency, as there were elsewhere, but it is the fact that he was so dismissive in an apparently generalised way that has upset Fianna Fáil members and has provoked Micheál Martin to spring to the defence of political voluntarism.

Among the difficult realities Bertie Ahern currently has to come to terms with is that even his political organisational achievements, in Dublin Central and for Fianna Fáil nationally, are coming up for detailed reassessment.

For decades many spoke in awe of the skill and capacity of the “Drumcondra mafia”, the intensity of its campaigning effort and how a small cohesive group of Ahern henchmen and women laid the foundations for their hero’s progress to the very top of Irish politics.

The “Drumcondra mafia” organisation that Bertie built was the most effective urban political machine ever put in place in this State, but it was only voluntary in part. It was predominately professional, in the sense of being paid for.

His campaigning and constituency representation may have initially been fuelled by the energy of a skilful army of Ahern loyalists but it quickly morphed into a professional and well-resourced operation. It had access to extraordinary amounts of money. It was funded in large part by corporate donations.

It was also subsidised by the exchequer through the provision of civil servant posts to process the mountain of constituency representations. Volunteer shoe leather came to play a smaller part alongside lavish amounts paid for personalised advertising and leafleting campaigns and Ahern’s extensive constituency office and staffing.

The reality is that Fianna Fáil never managed to replicate in modern urban and suburbanised Ireland the type of coherent effective cumann organisational structure that Lemass and others established, parish by parish, countrywide in the 1920s and replenished in the 1950s.

By the mid-1970s the party organisation in Dublin was weak in large parts. This was the weakness Ahern came to exploit in Dublin Central.

The organisational difficulties for Fianna Fáil became greater and more apparent as Ireland, and especially urban Ireland, underwent dramatic demographic change.

Instead of solving that problem by opening up and modernising the party’s structures, Ahern and other senior politicians circumvented it by continuing to promote their own personalised machines and appeal.

When Ahern himself became leader, Fianna Fáil’s organisation weaknesses were masked – at least in Dáil elections – by his extraordinary personal appeal and the electoral dividend that the party derived from the economic boom.

When the personal appeal imploded, the economy collapsed and the money dried up, the party in many areas had no voluntary organisation to fall back on.

Ahern brought Fianna Fáil extraordinary electoral success but he left the party organisation in a worse state than he found it.

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