Party seeks pathway out of wilderness
Fianna Fáil is hoping to follow some of Fine Gael’s successful strategies as it bids to restore the party’s fortunes. Second in a two-part series
ON MAY 16th this year, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin travelled to the Tipperary village of Ragg to deliver a speech to local party supporters. The date was significant. The day marked the 85th anniversary of the founding of the party in 1926.
Back then it was a slightly more exotic affair. In a packed La Scala theatre in Dublin, party founder Eamon de Valera made the speech in front of luminaries such as Countess Markiewicz, Sean T O’Kelly, Sean Lemass, Frank Aiken and Seán McEntee.
The Ragg speech was low-key but may come to be seen as one of those pivotal moments in the party’s history. Martin delivered it less than three months after the February general election. He used the occasion to set out how he planned to revive the party, to bring it from Ragg back to riches.
As political incantations go, it was well-drafted. Martin referenced many of the republican and egalitarian ideals espoused by the party’s founders.
“If we return Fianna Fáil to the core principle that for so many years won the support and loyalty of the Irish people we will not only renew our party, we will renew a vital positive force in Irish life.”
He was aware the tortuous task facing him was far wider than merely repositioning the party. And that’s why the key part of the speech focused on the much more mundane “nuts and bolts” of organisational matters.
The party was in ruinous state, Martin acknowledged. To recover, it needed new members, specifically young people and far more women (all of its 19 TDs are male and only two of its 14 Senators are female).
Moreover, Dublin was scorched earth for the party. Something needed to be done, and urgently.
The most revolutionary line of the speech would have been glossed over by anybody who wasn’t steeped in the internal culture of the party. “I believe we should now actively consider moving to a one-member one-vote system across the entire organisation,” Martin said.
For in its 80 year history, the cumann [branch] has been king in Fianna Fáil. The problem was that a fair proportion of its national network of 3,000 cumainn were involved in a form of gerrymandering when it came to selecting candidates for elections.
Each cumann, irrespective of size, could send three delegates to selection conventions. Many were controlled by a small number of people. Many others had ceased to exist or be active – so-called paper cumainn – but remained registered to retain their vital votes for a local political boss.
The Fianna Fáil leader was now pushing the notion that every member of the party should be entitled to vote. With the party in dire straits, he was also pushing an open door.
There is an awareness across Fianna Fáil of how brittle its structure is. Of the 20 or so activists interviewed for this series, drawn from all levels of the party, none dissented from the one-member one-vote idea although a few expressed concerns about rent-a-crowds, and about the wisdom of downgrading cumainn.
Indeed, many of their suggestions chimed with the ideas laid out by Martin on attracting more young people, women, making meetings more public, getting more people involved in policy formation and tackling the problem of Dublin.
Frank Barrett from Galway West said, in a practical sense, that meant the party moving into new estates at the edge of Galway and looking for people whose roots were in Fianna Fáil and who might share its values.
“It was never done in government and it was left aside. We need to regain that ground.”
Barrett, who is on the national executive, said there was no resistance to the new voting system, though it required safeguards to stop “instant”members, and also to retain relevancy for cumainn.
“Membership would have to be paid membership for up to two years and you would need to show you were active and had taken on responsibilities,” he argued.
Galway West colleague Stephanie Murphy Penn also favoured one-member one-vote but questioned any attempt to undermine cumainn.
“A cumann is about your parish, your village, it’s about your community and about your business and about all the things that affect people on a day-to-day basis.”
That view on retaining cumainn found strong resonance from other activists and seems to be backed by the leadership. Dublin is the only area where it may prove contentious. Former TD Chris Flood who has carried out a thorough (and very bleak) investigation of the parlous state of the party in Dublin has questioned the continuance of cumainn there, suggesting a strong constituency organisation instead.
But others oppose the abolition of cumainn in the capital. John Harraghy, a Blackrock activist, says: “My main concern would be that cumainn would no longer be functional. For some people it’s critical for them to see themselves as belonging to cumainn.”
So does Chris Andrews, who says they are vital to maintain the link with local communities.
Martin did not need to go back to 1926 to find his touchstone for reviving the party. There is a precedent much closer in time, a report written in 2002 by Fine Gael strategist Frank Flannery for new leader Enda Kenny, who was thrust into the role of saving a party whose very existence was also in doubt. Flannery’s blueprint spoke a lot of modernisation. He also focused on two separate concepts – reorganisation and a sense of patience.
He said that Kenny needed to spend a year working on reviving the party’s organisation, including a one-member one-vote system. He also warned party members not to be impatient, that they had to give Kenny plenty of time to prove himself as leader. For over a year, until September 2003, Kenny criss-crossed the country, encouraging local branches to drive up membership. His national visibility (and recognition) was still close to zero but Fine Gael was prepared to weather that problem in pursuit of a medium-term gain. Retrospectively, it was sage advice.
Martin has embarked on a remarkably similar exercise. The address in Ragg was part of an exercise to address all 43 constituency organisations (he’s gone through about 25). Renewal committees have been set up in each constituency and nationally (chaired by Dara Calleary).
A Dublin task force has been established and, so far, four area representatives (including former TDs Chris Andrews and Charlie O’Connor) have been appointed. Another former TD, Mary Hanafin, is running an initiative to encourage more women to join.
The national executive has been asked to identify suitable young candidates, under 30 years, for the next big electoral test, the 2014 locals (provided the party ducks out of the presidential election).
The idea of introducing a nominal membership fee for the first time has also gained traction. All the nuts and bolts work will culminate in a special ardfheis next February to approve those changes.
Indeed, on an informal basis Flood and the former minister and Limerick TD Gerry Collins have played the Flannery role for Fianna Fáil.
“The long-term prognosis will be seriously challenging unless the party gets the organisation functioning properly,” says Flood. “It needs policies, an air of realism, a return to community and to ordinary people.”
But the aims are no longer matched by resources or by an army of readily available volunteers. Only in May, Martin was saying the ardfheis would be in the autumn but the reality of the task – and of Fianna Fáil’s position – soon dawned, forcing the date back to next spring. He also spoke in Ragg of a new Dublin spokesperson being appointed. Three months later, that has yet to happen. Constituencies are beginning the process of reform but independently; most report little communication or direction from the party’s Mount Street headquarters.
And in Dublin, lack of resources has meant that constituency offices have been closed. Where that makes least sense is Dublin West, where the party needs to contest a byelection later this year.
“That’s the problem. The strategy needs to be much more focused on Dublin,” says Chris Andrews. “A lot of former TDs have had no contact from Mount Street since losing their seats. They have a huge amount of knowledge and contacts. Why not harness that?”
One strange quirk has been completely unexpected approaches by people to join the party. “In the cumann in Blackrock we have had three new people join, all of them young, and that’s a lot for us,” said Harraghy.
John Joe Higgins, treasurer in Galway West, also noted the new applications: “There are a lot of people who still want Fianna Fáil to be a successful organisation and that’s prompted them to join,” is his explanation.
Ógra, Fianna Fáil’s youth wing, is the obvious vehicle for recruiting new members. The party is very active on college campuses but there are some constituencies where it has no presence. In Galway West, there is a very active ógra. With two major third-level colleges, there are hundreds of members and the constituency PRO Aoife Golden says they have run major fundraisers for Haiti and held public meetings on policy matters.
In recent years, young activists such as Eoin Coyne in Cork East and Mark Curley in Dublin West have helped set up ógra in their constituencies, with regular updates on social networks. But there are other places, especially in the capital, where there are none and the party’s membership has a greying image.
The other challenges are more fundamental: the party trying to define Micheál Martin’s “core values” and implementing Flood’s call to make the party relevant.
When you ask Eoin Coyne, the youthful mayor of Youghal in Co Cork, what the party stands for, he talks about the Northern peace process, social partnership, of a party rising above easy left and right distinctions. The bulk of his response, though, centres on Micheál Martin’s qualities as leader.
In Galway West John Joe Higgins also has a stab at it. “We need to look at our sense of republicanism again in its true spirit; no matter how bad the economy the vulnerable will always be protected.
“We need a fair deal, and a sense of Christianity in the sense of fairness and decency.”
There is the emergence of some more radical views – Murphy Penn argues, for instance, the party should give full recognition to same-sex marriage.
Fianna Fáil’s biggest problem is going to be self-definition, positioning itself so it is distinct from the other centrist parties.
Strategists like Flood and Collins believe that the party can’t impose policies from Mount Street, that they must be drafted with an input from members who reflect the views of their own communities.
Says Collins: “It’s important that our membership become involved in community organisations and affairs. Cumainn will be the listening post.”
More generally, the vastly experienced Collins is sanguine about the future, believes the party is capable of surviving, dismisses the notion that it has become an irrelevance. “I believe Fianna Fáil can recover but certainly not for the next election. Many people have been hurt too deeply. It will take a few general elections before we can come back strongly,” is his summation.