Ten years ago, just before Fianna Fáil's decimation in the 2011 general election, poet Thomas McCarthy reflected in a column on the way in which Fianna Fáil was imprinted on his DNA, but also mused about its future.
Back then, McCarthy, the author of 1990 novel Without Power, said that Fianna Fáil was “not a political philosophy, as such” but rather the combination of men, and it was largely men, of “certain social origins and frustrated private hopes”.
"For a large number of men and women, membership of the party was always a second chance education," wrote McCarthy (67), who is from Cappoquin, Co Waterford, but who has been long resident in Cork city.
“Every political party must cohere around a set of social and financial interests but it can’t go on if it propagates an unsustainable world view,” he wrote, “Sometimes, a viewpoint so lovely that it could be set to music can become an embarrassment over time,” he added, with prescient perceptiveness.
Still reeling from garnering just 4.6 per cent in the Dublin Bay South byelection, Fianna Fáil members are, despite having their hands on the levers of power with Fine Gael and the Greens, pondering the future with some trepidation.
The days where the party was the dominant force in Irish politics is long gone, with its traditional alliance of small farmers and the urban working class sundering as the State has rolled into a new century.
Tom Meaney spent 17½ years travelling from his home in Dromtarriffe, near Millstreet in north Cork, to Dáil Éireann after he succeeded his father, Con, as a TD, first for Mid-Cork in 1965 and later Cork North West. Now 90, he is a link to earlier times.
"Fianna Fáil must appeal more to the people – many of our politicians lack idealism and the back pocket seems to be their boss. I can quote De Valera in the 1930s when the TDs went for an increase in their allowance and he said, 'If we overpay our politicians, they will lose their idealism.'
“I can’t see where the idealism is today,” says Meaney, who is steadfast in his belief that if the party is to continue to be relevant, it must be true to its founding philosophy and continue to address the needs of both urban and rural voters.
"There is no reason why they should become a rural party, or an urban party – they were established to be a party for everybody. I remember the late Brian Lenihan snr saying, when he was asked where did Fianna Fáil stand, he always said 'We're broadly based' and you have to be that."
Midleton solicitor Ken Murray served two terms on Midleton Town Council. Born in the 1960s, he is of a different generation to Meaney but he sees the party's fortunes in Dublin as critical if it is to compete with Fine Gael and Sinn Féin.
Sinn Féin has sought to usurp Fianna Fáil among the urban working class, promising greater investment in housing, health and education as a counterpoint to a Fine Gael that promises to promote entrepreneurship with low taxation for higher earners, he says.
However, Murray is wary of the view that Fianna Fáil should consider being a junior partner for an Sinn Féin-led government after the next election, given what he argues are Sinn Féin’s disastrous economic policies.
‘Not the elite’
“I would always have seen Fianna Fáil as standing for the lower middle classes, not the elite of the Irish revolution, but I do fear we are losing the urban working-class voter, particularly in Dublin. I don’t know how you can win that back because you can’t out-populist Sinn Féin.
“Sinn Féin are in favour of almost everything and they are incapable of making a hard decision – look at the pension issue – but their economic policies are just bananas. If Fianna Fáil tries to compete with them on that front, we’re heading for the rocks.”
Fianna Fáil TDs are not performing well, he complains, "They haven't landed a glove on Eoin Ó Broin on housing. I reckon the next election, Sinn Féin could come back with 55/56 seats – but they'll need both Fianna Fáil, Labour and somebody else to get into the mid-80s."
Eileen Calnan from Clonakilty, who joined Ógra Fianna Fáil when she was 15 and was part of the late Joe Walsh' s party machine in west Cork, blames Fianna Fáil's current woes on its decision to support the minority Fine Gael government in 2016.
“Our identity was diluted because adversarial politics was gone out the window. Now we are in coalition with the Blueshirts, the archenemy to a lot of us, have we been consumed by the Blueshirts? Do we have our own vision?”
While Fianna Fáil was traditionally left of centre and Fine Gael to the right, the party is now in “a state of adaptive drift” where it is no longer setting the agenda, something which she finds difficult to accept given the party’s past role.
Calnan acknowledges Micheál Martin read the runes right on both marriage equality and repealing the Eighth Amendment, even though he was out of step with the grassroots. But she is convinced that Fianna Fáil must remain a broad church, capable of accommodating diverging views.
Calnan rejects suggestions that Fianna Fáil is not welcoming to women, pointing to the election of fellow west Cork woman, Fianna Fáil councillor Gillian Coughlan from Bandon as Mayor of Cork and the election of Cllr Deirdre Kelly in Skibbereen.
Regretting Martin’s move to what she sees as a form of less-traditional republicanism, she says: “Republicanism is about to people and you have to talk to the unionists but we’re losing our republican identity all over the country over the last ten years.”
Fellow west Cork activist John Twomey from Ballinadee, where his great grandfather Denis O'Leary was one of the founders of the local cumann, says the party is a state of flux, facing the challenge of attracting young voters.
"The fallout from the Celtic Tiger era has taken the wind out of our sails. There is a noticeable divide between rural and urban voters with a distinct lack of common-sense leadership and articulation of what we stand for in 2021, especially in Dublin.
“Traditionally, Fianna Fáil was capable of marrying working-class Dublin aspirations with those of rural members, but not anymore ... there is a need for ‘a Bertie Ahern’ type figure to grab Fianna Fáil by the scruff of the neck in Dublin to inject some life back into [it].
“What Fianna Fáil stands for at the moment is maybe not clear for younger voters. The older generation have a clearer idea what the party stands for – its republican ideals, promoting industry, social housing, education and opportunity for all,” says Twomey, a teacher.
“And it appears the liberal agenda promoted by all political parties in recent times, although supported by the FF leadership and party policy, is not as well articulated by Fianna Fáil as is by other parties. Consequently, there is a disconnect with younger generations.”
Life-long supporter Sandra Murphy, who joined four years ago and ran unsuccessfully in Cork North Central in the last election, says FF has much to be proud of, especially for coping with "initially insurmountable" crises during Covid-19.
Unlike Calnan, she believes Fianna Fáil was right to support a minority Fine Gael government. Now, it must focus on community activism if it is remain the largest party in local and national government," says Murphy, a group brand manager with Trigon Hotels.
Mitchelstown pig farmer Ned O'Keeffe spent nearly 30 years as a Cork East TD. Still forthright in his views, he argues that Fianna Fáil spends more time thinking about people in need than Fine Gael, but he is under no illusions about the challenges ahead.
However, Fianna Fáil has “moved away” from its past successes on “housing, agriculture, industry and, of course, education” to “where we sold out to Fine Gael when we supported them with the confidence and supply agreement in 2016 and now we are in Government with them.”
O'Keeffe is agnostic on whether Fianna Fáil should look at a future coalition deal with Sinn Féin. While he accepts Sinn Féin may win votes on housing and the issue of a united Ireland that previously went to Fianna Fáil, he is wary of Sinn Féin's high-spending economic policies.
“Our alignment with Fine Gael has left Sinn Féin take that spot from us and our failure to recognise that we aspire to a United Ireland is the other one that cost us –we were ahead of Sinn Féin in terms of nationalism, but not anymore,” says the far from retiring 78 year old.
"Sinn Féin talk about tax but taxation is related to buoyancy in the economy. If you want lower taxes you have to boost the economy – economics hasn't changed much since Adam Smith and we cannot sustain the current level of borrowing . If we're not careful, we'll end up the Venezuela of Europe.
“Fianna Fáil is at a crossroads. We were always a broad-based party looking after the whole spectrum of society – from the social welfare, farming, business, housing, education. We seem to have surrendered the greater part of that base and we need to start winning it back.”