Taoiseach's failings as national leader may inflict most damage on FF at polls
ANALYSIS:At the end of his inept term as leader, Brian Cowen’s legacy is to leave Fianna Fáil’s identity in tatters and its ability to reinvent itself hopelessly compromised
THOSE MEMBERS of the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party who recently voted confidence in Brian Cowen’s leadership may have believed that a change of leader so close to an election would do little for the party. But perhaps there were other impulses at work, including traditional loyalty to the leader – in his post-heave interviews, the vanquished Micheál Martin referred to such loyalty as being part of the Fianna Fáil DNA – alongside a hope that based on past performances, an election might bring out the fighting, aggressive and hard-nosed Cowen. This was the Cowen who in 2007 was widely perceived as the devoted party man who grabbed the Fianna Fáil election campaign by the scruff of the neck and shook it vigorously while Bertie Ahern floundered.
Those still loyal to the party who clung to the possibility that an in-form and energetic, canvassing Cowen could spearhead a campaign that could limit the extent of the impending demise watched with despair as he imploded last week. It became clear beyond all doubt that a lack of effective leadership had damaged Cowen beyond redemption, and in a political party that has traditionally built so much around the personality and appeal of its leader, this had caused unprecedented pessimism.
Historically, there have always been divisions in Fianna Fáil, but it is striking how the party has managed to pull together at elections. The difficulty for Fianna Fáil recently was the dilemma of trying to plan a unified and disciplined campaign at a time when Cowen’s stewardship of party and country had been so compromised.
Fianna Fáil has always thrived on elections and the leader has been pivotal in focusing their campaigns. Whether upping Dev, letting Lemass lead on, backing Jack, following Charlie or chasing Bertie, rallying around the leader has been vital. But magnetic leadership has traditionally been only one part of the process; Fianna Fáil has also embraced elections with gusto because of its historically unrivalled election machine.
When the archives of the Fianna Fáil party were deposited in the UCD archives in 2000, they provided researchers with an opportunity to look in detail at the sheer extent of the Fianna Fáil electoral machinery and its ability to mobilise thousands of activists over successive local and general elections.
What these documents highlight is how central the idea of winning elections and being in power has been to the party’s sense of identity since its foundation in 1926. Rallying people involved the serious work of mobilising cumainn (party branches) and regional and national organisers. The centralised party administration remained in constant contact with the grassroots and campaigns were organised in a much more advanced way than any other party could manage. What is also evident from the party’s archival files is the sheer amount of time that was devoted to local issues.
The difficulty for Fianna Fáil and Cowen recently was that the narrative went national. The party has presided over a loss of sovereignty and economic ruin, and this creates all sorts of identity crises for a party that, historically, has been so sure footed in insisting on its competence, ability to be inclusive, mobilise volunteers and its capacity to generate confidence in its rule and its historic mission.
In 1996, when Martin Mansergh addressed the Irish Historical Society on the subject of 70 years of Fianna Fáil, he observed that “for as long as I have worked for Fianna Fáil, which is now 15 years, great importance has been attached by its leadership and upper echelons to its description as the Republican Party . . . for many of us, republicanism is not just a political philosophy, but a social philosophy”.
That identity now lies in tatters; and in the face of mass unemployment, emigration and the expectations generated by a 10-year boom, Fianna Fáil’s historical approach to winning and keeping power, encapsulated by historian Joe Lee as a pragmatism that enabled them to “square the economic and social circles”, will count for little.
Despite the attachment of party members to the republican label, the periods of modern Irish history that have been characterised by lengthy periods of Fianna Fáil hegemony, including 1932-48, 1959-73 as single-party governments, and 1997-2007 as dominant coalition partners, were not about some of its traditional republican aims such as a united Ireland or a distinctive Irish culture.
They were about the perception that it had more effective economic and social policies than others; policies that could appeal to all classes, a perception that still managed to get them over the line in 2007.
Historically, there have been other aspects of Fianna Fáil rule that have worked in its favour and now find it wanting. The founding father of the party, Éamon de Valera, while a polarising character nationally, provided dignity at difficult times.
In 1939, the writer Seán O’Faoláin observed of Dev: “Nobody will deny that one of his greatest qualities – and it contributes greatly to his influence – is dignity.” In failing to bring such dignity to his role, and add the basic ingredient of empathy, Cowen fatally faltered.
His ineptitude over the last two years may result in him being seen as the worst leader of the party. It has been widely asserted that since he took over the leadership of the party he has been desperately unlucky in the way events, nationally and internationally, have unfolded.
History would suggest otherwise; that difficulties and crises are precisely what can bring out the best in a genuinely able leader. One only has to consider the case of Seán Lemass, who took over the leadership of Fianna Fáil at a time of great difficulty in 1959 and within six years had established himself as one of the most effective leaders in the history of the State. Ironically, it was the abilities and inspiration of Lemass that Cowen invoked when he took over the leadership of the party in 2008.
Over the decades, Fianna Fáil has demonstrated the capacity to reinvent itself when required, as happened in the late 1950s when it abandoned its traditional policy of economic protectionism, or the late 1980s when it decided to confront the reality of national debt, but in contemporary Ireland, as a result of poor leadership, room for manoeuvre in this regard has been hopelessly compromised.
Fianna Fáil has built its success on experience, tradition, localism, achievements in protecting and maximising sovereignty, strong leadership and the idea that it can manage the economy. How many, if any, of these is it left with now?
From its foundation, Fianna Fáil had no qualms about seeking financial support from the wealthy and accepted money from business circles, but exactly how, in the modern era, did it lose the balance and allow itself to become so compromised in relation to wealthy elites? How did it continue to place confidence in a leader so obviously lacking focus and competence?
The answers to these questions may be that it has simply had too much power for too long, and gradually blurred the distinction between party welfare and the national welfare; and as recent events have revealed, Cowen exemplified this trend more than most.
Nonetheless, blaming Cowen alone for all the failings is historically unsound. Historians are likely to see his leadership as the culmination of disastrous policy decisions made by many over an extended period. There is little doubt, however, that he will be seen as culpable for his lack of intervention as minister for finance in relation to an overheated under regulated economy, and therein lies another departure from what, historically, created much support for Fianna Fáil: its commitment to an active State interventionism in contrast to the free market sentiments of Fine Gael.
Cowen has undoubtedly found the scale of the invective directed towards him shocking and difficult to deal with, and his appalling communication skills and self-destructive stubbornness have not helped.
He is serious about history and about the description of Fianna Fáil as “the Republican Party”, and when he resigned on Saturday, he pointedly used that label in stressing the importance of the volunteers who have historically devoted their time and effort on behalf of the party.
Given his sentiments in that regard, it is likely that the accusation and criticism that stung him most fiercely as leader was that of economic treason, a charge made in the Dáil by Labour leader Eamon Gilmore.
He may genuinely have wanted to see a horrendous political journey through, precisely to counteract that charge of treason, in the hope that the historical verdict would show that he did not abandon his office, nor was he abandoned by his party, at a time when the Republic was in tatters.
Given his primary devotion to the tribe – it has been his whole life and it appears he knows little else – it was always going to be the welfare of that tribe, and the prospects of Fianna Fáil not wanting him at the helm in a general election, that would be the deciding factor in whether he would stay on.
But it was his inability to give national leadership that was his greatest failing and it is highly unlikely that the electorate will have any sympathy for him or his party, despite past achievements and triumphs.
Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of modern Irish history at UCD