'Fianna Fáil has lost the local knowledge. The grassroots are not being listened to'
In the first of a two-part series, Fianna Fáil activists explain how a dominant political force lost its touch. There is a plan to revive party fortunes, but for many the reforms are too slow, writes HARRY McGEE, Political Correspondent
“There were about 20 members of it at that stage,” he says. “We had a chairman, a secretary and a treasurer, and met regularly. There was lots of political debate and activity. Councillors and TDs went to all the meetings. It was a great place for them to get a sense of what was happening locally.”
There were more than a dozen other busy Fianna Fáil cumainn within a 15km radius of Kilwatermoy, and Tobin can reel off most of their names without a pause: “Knockanore, Glendine, Ballysaggart, Tallow, Lismore, Cappoquin, Mellory, Affane, Ballyduff, Mocollop, Camphire, Touraneena . . .”
The fact that such a small place as Kilwatermoy, a half-parish, was home to its own Fianna Fáil cumann was unremarkable. For decades the State’s dominant party was as enmeshed in each community as were the GAA, the Catholic Church, the Society of St Vincent de Paul and Macra na Feirme.
Fianna Fáil’s grassroots organisation was its backbone. No other outfit could mobilise such an army of volunteers, highly organised and unwavering in commitment. At its height the party could boast an astounding 3,000 cumainn, an average of 75 per constituency.
The party’s electoral success rested largely on these activists, and Charles J Haughey turned to them when rebuilding his political base during his years in the wilderness. He criss-crossed the country to talk to cumainn on what he mockingly called his “rubber-chicken dinner circuit”.
Over the course of a generation – two decades, maybe more – the situation has changed dramatically. Tobin’s Kilwatermoy cumann is still on the go, though with a smaller membership, but of the other dozen or so in the locality he guesses that six at most are active. A few are redundant; others are dormant but retain their registration to give them voting rights in the selection of candidates. Generally, too, Tobin accepts, the membership is ageing, with few young people interested in joining.
“That is where Fianna Fáil has slipped up,” he says. “It has lost the local knowledge. In the past number of years the grassroots are not being listened to at all. That has finished us.”
The grim situation for the party in the West Waterford constituency is mirrored elsewhere. In the adjacent Cork East, locals say that half the cumainn in the Midleton electoral area are moribund, though the situation is better north of the Blackwater, the river that divides the constituency in two. In Galway West, with 78 cumainn, Galway city has become a problem, though rural areas are still strong. In Kildare North a little more than half the cumainn are fully active.
The problem is bad enough in rural areas, but in Dublin and other large urban settings it is dire. Less than half the 12 cumainn in Dún Laoghaire are active, and it’s a similar situation in Dublin South West.
In Dublin South East, the former TD Chris Andrews estimates that just three cumainn out of 30 are fully up and running. Only Dublin West, the base of the late Brian Lenihan, the party’s sole standard-bearer in the capital after the February election debacle, can boast that most of its 18 cumainn are active. Not only does the party no longer have TDs in Dublin, but its organisation there is barely functioning.
During the good times for the banks and developers Fianna Fáil was experiencing its own bubble, which slowly expanded to bursting point. While the party coasted electorally, it was corroding from the bottom up. A fair proportion of its 3,000 cumainn were “paper cumainn”, existing only in name. Membership was dwindling and ageing. TDs did not engage as intensely with cumainn as they should, and ministers ignored them completely. Fianna Fáil had been aware of the growing disconnection as far back as 1991 but had ignored it. When the party finally surveyed the situation after this year’s election, it became piercingly apparent that a seemingly impregnable vessel had been reduced to a rust-ridden hulk.
In its early years after 1926, Fianna Fáil’s leaders were obsessed with building up a national movement based on a model previously used by Sinn Féin. The aim was to have a cumann (branch) in every parish, a comhairle ceantair (district branch) in every electoral area and a comhairle dáil ceantair (constituency branch) in every constituency.
Another Sinn Féin legacy was secrecy. Internal party activities and meetings were closed to the public. Eoin O’Malley, a lecturer in politics at Dublin City University, believes it was the most secretive political movement apart from Sinn Féin. “Fianna Fáil always refused access to membership lists. Therefore it was always hard to tell the strength of the party,” he says.
The party claimed it had 55,000 members in 2004. O’Malley and others are sceptical about this number, which, he says, seems exaggerated compared with those for other parties.
THE FIRST of many internal efforts to reform the party’s structure and merge cumainn was initiated by Haughey in 1991. As with Seanad reform, the reports on this all came to nothing. After the local-election setback in 2009 the then leader, Brian Cowen, asked two senior figures, Gerry Collins and Chris Flood, to carry out an in-depth study of the organisation.
It was needed. There were glaring anomalies that required attention. For example, every cumann, irrespective of size or level of activity, was entitled to three votes at selection conventions. This meant that a cumann with five members had the same voting strength as one with 100 members. It was patently unfair.
Inevitably, cumainn were kept alive artificially to ensure votes for an incumbent TD – these were the so-called paper cumainn. As personality-driven politics became more prevalent, TDs began to treat cumainn as their chattels for voting purposes. It was expedient for TDs to keep cumainn as closed shops, with the result that recruitment was discouraged and activity was nil.
Gerry Collins, a party grandee, has acted as a troubleshooter in many flagging and turbulent constituencies. He spent a summer in Co Mayo a few years ago trying to whittle down the number of cumainn from an astounding 280, the highest in the country. In 2009 his work focused on rural areas and the cities of Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford. He spoke to every conceivable player in each trouble spot. What he found was dispiriting.
“We could see clearly that members genuinely felt that they had lost their worth as members in terms of having input into policy and organisation matters,” Collins says. “They were not listened to and they were not being consulted . . . It was very hard to get ministers to come to constituencies and talk about policy matters.”
Collins also noted that the strength of the organisation had become patchy. “There were a number of paper cumainn, which always came to life when it came to the selection of candidates. The level of activity at other times was practically none. It suited the incumbents, of course.”
The situation observed by Chris Flood in Dublin was grim. “We visited 12 constituencies three times,” he says. “We found very, very weak organisation. The cumainn had not been meeting on a regular basis for some time. There was not good attendance at constituency meetings. There was a very depleted membership. They were not rooted in the community in any way and not active in the community any more.”
There was another phenomenon that he found troubling. “A trend emerged in urban areas over 25 years,” he says. “Aspiring politicians tended to create their own organisations, parallel to the cumainn. That, to some extent, caused disenchantment among traditional members who found themselves excluded. Fianna Fáil in Dublin then emerged as a franchise. Workers and supporters worked exclusively for the TD’s franchise and departed when he or she no longer had a seat. It consequently led to a weaker structure.”
Although Flood does not give any specific exmpales of this, it is clear that Bertie Ahern’s St Luke’s operation was a classic example, as were the separate organisations around Seamus Brennan and Tom Kitt in Dublin South.
This malaise is borne out by local evidence elsewhere. In the seaside town of Youghal, in Cork East, Fianna Fáil, once dominant, has been emasculated by Sinn Féin, for which Sandra McLellan is now a TD. Fianna Fáil has no county councillor in this local electoral area (Midleton) and indeed lost both its Dáil seats in February. It does hold the mayoralty of Youghal, through Eoin Coyne. The 23-year-old, who has been a member of the party for six years, has seen a decline.
“The cumann seems to be slowly dying out,” he says. “When I joined there were over 20 members. A lot of older members have passed away; others have lost interest and moved on. It’s between 10 and 15 now.”
Another activist, Mary Daly White, says the party’s last TD from the town, John Brosnan, had run a very strong cumann, with about 50 members, when she joined, in the late 1960s.
“I would say the demise came in the 2004 and 2009 elections,” she adds. “Fianna Fáil was in government and had no interest in local politics.”
With no council representation and with two TDs, Ned O’Keeffe and Michael Ahern, locked in a feud, she says, Youghal was ignored.
Cllr Frank O’Flynn, from Glanworth in the same constituency, agrees that the local elections of 2009 were a watershed. “I personally felt in 2009 we had the amber light because of the poor performance,” he says. “The party at national level and at TD level did not take heed of the danger signs. Ministers acted like little gods. They were too far removed from ordinary people. The light turned red in February.”
FOR JAMES TOBIN in Co Waterford, the decision by party headquarters to interview prospective candidates for local elections and have the ultimate say in selection was the last straw for some of the cumainn.
Other activists, such as Stephanie Murphy-Penn, in Galway West, argue that interviews were beneficial, as they unearthed some good new candidates who might not have had a chance otherwise. Some local politicians had used their control of paper cumainn to stop younger candidates getting on to the ticket.
In Dublin, activists agree with Chris Flood’s verdict on the cumainn. In Dublin South West, says the former TD Charlie O’Connor, at least half the cumainn are no longer active. Things seems worse in Dublin South East, where only three cumainn remain strong. Chris Andrews believes that a few decisions by headquarters to impose candidates and to ignore the views of local organisations speeded up the disintegration of Fianna Fáil . “It put the foot on the accelerator,” he says ruefully.
John Harraghy is secretary of the party’s Blackrock branch, in the Dún Laoghaire constituency, where it lost its two seats. Again the assessment is that only 50 per cent of cumainn are active. He says the lack of direction from headquarters about what to do has been disappointing. “It mirrors the communication. There has been none. We need regular contact from Mount Street , not just when they want us to run raffles and draws.”
In Castleknock, Marian Quinlan, party activist and secretary to the late Brian Lenihan, and Ógra Fianna Fáil member Mark Curley are in the process of closing down the Dublin West constituency office. It is different from other constituencies in the capital, says Quinlan. “We are still strong. There are 17 cumainn and they are all good, though age profile would be high.”
Among them is the cumann nua, a branch comprised solely of members of the large Nigerian community in Dublin West.
The reason for the constituency’s strength, Quinlan says, is simple. “The glue that held everything together was Brian Lenihan. The whole organisation was based around his personality and popularity. We had 360 volunteers out and about in February.”
Quinlan believes the party has a realistic chance of winning the byelection, a minority view. “If we get the right candidate and based on Brian’s popularity, we could make it,” she says. “But then Fianna Fáil in Mount Street has no plans to keep the office open. It’s the repository for everything out here. If it goes, the system out here will be fractured.”
Others in Dublin, such as Andrews, are impatient at the duration of the taking-stock phase, which they said has led to inertia and quiet dismay. He says that many former TDs have had no contact from the party since losing their seats. He worries that this could lead to a loss of local knowledge and contacts.
But the party does have a plan, indeed several plans, including a new membership fee and a move to a one-member-one-vote selection system, like Fine Gael’s.
Then there is the party leader’s tour of all 43 constituencies, which ends in September. After this, there may need to be more radical organisational surgery. What is indisputable is that perhaps half of the party’s 3,000 cumainn are moribund and that its current membership is a small fraction of 55,000, and ageing to boot.
What is also unavoidable is the gravity of the situation in Dublin. Flood has proposed a major change there, a proposition that seems almost sacrilegious given the gargantuan weight of history behind the party’s 3,000 cumainn.
“The day of the cumann in urban areas in modern society may well have passed,“ he says.
On Monday:Harry McGee talks to grassroots activists, councillors and former TDs about the stark choices facing Fianna Fáil and about Micheál Martin’s efforts to modernise the party