Fianna Fáil meeting hears criticisms and defence of Taoiseach’s leadership

Attendees at Cavan event asked to hand over their mobile phones for the duration of discussion

Taoiseach Micheal Martin at the Fianna Fail think-in, taking place at the Slieve Russell Hotel in Co Cavan. Photograph: Conor McCabe/PA Wire

Taoiseach Micheal Martin at the Fianna Fail think-in, taking place at the Slieve Russell Hotel in Co Cavan. Photograph: Conor McCabe/PA Wire

 

There have been calls for leadership change in Fianna Fáil, as well as robust defences of Taoiseach Micheál Martin, at a special party meeting to discuss its poor performance in the 2020 general election.

The meeting of the party’s TDs and Senators in Co Cavan has heard criticism of the party’s strategy and leadership during a day-long discussion on a report reviewing how expected gains for the party in the election turned into a seven-seat loss.

The meeting which began just after 3pm broke for dinner at 7pm after only nine speakers had address colleagues. To prevent any leaks of proceedings, those present were asked to hand over their mobile phones for the duration of the session.

Those coming out said the meeting had been slow with a relatively calm atmosphere. The most stringent criticism had come from Offaly TD Barry Cowen as well as Sligo TD Marc Mac Sharry, both of whom were critical of the leadership.

Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath is said to have made a very strong speech defending Mr Martin both during the election campaign and as leader.

Criticism

The Dublin Bay South TD Jim O’Callaghan also contributed to the meeting with a strong criticism of over-centralisation of decision-making in the party. Those at the meeting said he had argued there was an over-concentration of responsibility for policy and other strategy in a handful of people and the decisoin-making needed to be “socialised” . Mr O’Callaghan gave as an example his own expertise in the area of law, said colleagues, but pointed out that he was not approached to contribute to the manifesto.

Sources in the room say there was applause for contributions in defence of the Taoiseach, as supporters seek to rally middle ground TDs. Supporters of Martin, who were on edge in recent days, seemed relieved at the progress of the meeting when it broke for dinner.

One TD said there was a recognition among TDS there is a downward trajectory in support for the party and solutions have to be found to reverse that trend. “There have been criticisms of the leadership and headquarters but they are necessary and not personal”.

In his speech to colleagues, Mr Martin said he accepted some of the criticism that was made in the report and accepted that lessons needed to be learned.

The Taoiseach told the meeting that Fianna Fáil is doing well in government. According to those present he said the party’s focus was on the substance and delivery.

“We will act on the recommendations and the election review,” he told colleagues.

“We must attract more young people by emphasising how we want to make changes so that Ireland is more progressive.”

He promised to adopt what he described as “a new living manifesto” to be updated regularly.

“Our future is only secure as a party if we act with unity of purpose.

“If we are divided we will never succeed.

“We have an opportunity to grow if we work better as a collective.”

According to those present, the chair of the committee who carried out the review, Seán Fleming, also gave a presentation on its key findings.

The report contained 57 recommendations for change. It strongly criticised shortcomings in the party’s election strategy and campaign management, the negative impact of ‘Votegate’ in terms of trusting Fianna Fáil candidate, a very poor social media presence, a perception the party had opposed repealing the 8th amendment on abortion, as well as an over-focus on attacking Sinn Féin during the campaign. 

A survey of the membership also found there was a high level of uncertainty among members under 65 as to what the party represented and stood for.

Press conference

Speaking to reporters earlier Mr Martin accepted his decision to extend the confidence and supply agreement in the last government created difficulties for Fianna Fáil in the 2020 general election as did the public perception his party did not support repeal of the Eighth Amendment on abortion.

Mr Martin conceded that the report had made “fair points” on some of the failings and weaknesses that led to its poor performance in that election.

However, he insisted that his own leadership of the party was not an issue and that he would continue as leader of the party once he steps down as Taoiseach in December 2022.

“I will be taking up the position as tánaiste (on that date). We have entered a coalition Government. We have made commitments in respect of that and we are going to follow through on those commitments.

“It’s not about personality, it’s about the issues.”

Asked about ongoing criticism of his leadership within the party, he dismissed the notion of a challenge. “I have been a member of the parliamentary party for many years. I have rarely seen unanimity on many issues including who leads the party. So that’s not news.”

At a press conference ahead of the meeting, Mr Martin said Fianna Fáil was the largest party in the Oireachtas but needed to change and “align with the emerging modern Ireland of the 21st century”.

“There is internal reflection needed. We are a party that looks outward. We are there to serve and to contribute to the wellbeing of our people and do everything we can to contribute to the quality of life on this island.”

Asked about the report’s critical finding on the one year extension in 2019 of the three-year confidence and supply arrangement with Fine Gael (brokered in 2016), he argued that it was a unique arrangement.

“It did prove difficult, without question, towards the end. There are very fair points made in the report.

“We did put the country first (in 2019) because of the Brexit situation that had arisen.

“Nobody foresaw Brexit when we entered into confidence and supply.

“The country did well out of confidence and supply in terms of the broader macro level of economic stability.

“It was not ideal at all in terms of progressing issues around housing or climate change,” he said.

The Taoiseach argued from his perspective the identity of the party was very clear. “We believe in the unity of Ireland between Protestant Catholic and dissenter.

“We are a pro-enterprise and pro-European party and we believe in strong State involvement in education, health and housing.

“It is very clear why I joined Fianna Fáil. For me as a person who grew up in a working class area in Cork City, we saw Fianna Fáil provided opportunity. “We were the first generation in our family to get second level education. We were the first to go to third level education.

“That to me summed up in essence what Fianna Fáil.”

But asked why so many members under the age of 65 struggled to identify what Fianna Fáil represented and if it left the party with a major problem, he replied it was not so, rather a “major opportunity” to look at the aims and objectives of the party.

On the report’s findings on the party’s position on abortion, he said its nuanced position was not recognised sufficiently by the public: “We had an individual conscience application. I don’t think the public distinguished between that individual conscience and the views of the party.

“I think there are lessons to be learned from that.”

He said he welcomed the discussion. “The important thing coming out of this meeting is that the party unites, that we have unity of purpose in facing the challenges ahead,” he said.