Bullish FF rhetoric fails to conceal grassroot deflation at ardfheis
Micheál Martin diagnoses problems without proposing solutions
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin: ardfheis speech was symbolic of the crisis of conscience Fianna Fáil is enduring. Photograph: Laura Hutton/PA Wire
Fianna Fáil may tell you they are buoyed and ready for an election but the mood in the RDS this weekend told its own story.
Ask any of the 4,000 delegates how they are feeling and their reaction is predictable. The party is ready, raring and in pole position to win the next general election.
There is a slight problem, though. The atmosphere at the party’s ardfheis this weekend was not quite a match for the declarations of confidence.
Far from a party on the cusp of government, there was a inescapable sense of deflation from grassroot members. Delegates were understandably frustrated by the straitjacket they find themselves in, seeking credit for some Government decisions while avoiding responsibility for others.
Many a TD and senator will bend your ear about the welfare increases or the tax reductions the party believes it secured in Budget 2018 but run a mile when the budgetary decisions in health or housing are criticised.
Fianna Fáil is not in government but it has more power over executive decisions than many Ministers sitting around the Cabinet table. On occasion it uses its influence to sway Government policy but on others it throws its hands in the air and insists it is a mere Opposition party.
It is a position that may benefit the party electorally but it is causing a degree of exasperation from within.
Another worrying position adopted by the party is causing some head-scratching. The ardfheis passed a motion insisting it would not go into coalition with Sinn Féin under any circumstances. Party leader Micheál Martin also reaffirmed Fianna Fáil’s reluctance to enter a similar arrangement with Fine Gael.
It wants to be the largest party in government but its leadership appears to be banking on a miraculous comeback of the Labour Party to ensure it secures the keys to power again.
This ardfheis was the first since the 2016 general election, when Fianna Fáil beat the odds and secured a doubling of their representation. The party may not have won the election, as the ardfheis clár suggested, but its gains exceeded those of its nearest rivals.
That was largely down to Martin, who is a formidable politician and probably one of the most underestimated ones in Ireland.
His speech delivered to the masses on Saturday night was symbolic of the crisis of conscience Fianna Fáil is enduring. Martin highlighted the party’s success in influencing Government policy, while castigating the Government for its failures.
It has been a clever ploy to focus on Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s fondness for publicity. No speech this weekend was complete without a reference to the strategic communications unit or the “Republic of photo opportunities”, as coined by Fianna Fáil Senator Lorraine Clifford-Lee.
The line of attack has been effective and has certainly given Fianna Fáil some much-needed political ammunition over the new Taoiseach.
However, what Fianna Fáil failed to do was offer a glimpse of what life with Martin as taoiseach would be like. Not a policy announcement in sight. Fianna Fáil would fix the health service, Fianna Fáil would build more houses, Martin declared. However, he offered no indication as to how and certainly gave no reminder of Martin’s time in health or Fianna Fáil’s presiding over the economic crash.
There was a willingness to diagnose the problems without offering the solutions.
The party also debated the eighth amendment at its conference this weekend and passed a motion opposing any attempt to diminish the constitutional right of the unborn. Of the 28 speakers, six spoke in favour of repealing the eighth amendment. Change may be afoot in Fianna Fáil but at a slow pace.
Fianna Fáil has yet to determine if it will allow the Government to continue in office until the end of 2018. Events will, no doubt, play a key part.
If this ardfheis was the marker of things to come, the party appears quite content to allow this ship sail for another while yet.
Fianna Fáil will continue to assist in steering the wheel but may soon have to start taking responsibility for the waves it encounters along the way.