Challenge to Martin a sad reflection on FF discipline
INSIDE POLITICS:THE ONLY conclusion to be drawn from the convulsions in Fianna Fáil over the presidency is that the party has a death wish.
If a 72-year-old Senator can defy the party leader and bring a sizeable chunk of the parliamentary party with him, the writing would appear to be on the wall.
After the general election disaster last February, the political consensus among friend and foe alike was that, bad and all as the beating was, Fianna Fáil would recover in time.
Although the party had lost its position as the dominant force in Irish politics, few believed it did not have a long-term future.
It seemed inconceivable the party founded by Éamon de Valera in 1926, which had been in power for more than 60 of the past 79 years, would not bounce back at some stage as a potential party of power.
Now, after a little more than six months in Opposition, there are serious doubts about whether the party will be in any kind of shape to even put up a fight at the next election.
The astonishing outcome of the parliamentary party meeting on Thursday to consider the presidential bid of Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú showed just how far Fianna Fáil has fallen in a short time. The fact the party leader was unable to crush a challenge to his authority from a Senator is a sad reflection of how discipline has broken down in the party, which was renowned down the decades for its discipline and unity.
The threat by deputy leader Éamon Ó Cuív to resign if Martin insisted on having his way has left the party in a real mess.
“The party has been hijacked by a bunch of elderly Senators who got elected by spending their time in safe Fianna Fáil houses, while we faced the wrath of the electorate. They haven’t a clue about what is happening in the real world,” said one TD.
The episode developed out of nowhere at the first meeting of the parliamentary party after the summer recess when Ó Murchú announced he wanted to run for the presidency as an Independent candidate.
He told colleagues he would be able to get his nomination papers signed by a number of Independents, and he asked for permission to get willing Fianna Fáil colleagues to sign as well.
The request was not a direct challenge to Martin’s decision that Fianna Fáil should not contest the presidency.
However, by seeking to get the party involved in nominating a candidate at all, the move amounted to a strategy that would inevitably end up making the party leader look foolish.
After almost four hours of fruitless debate, during which a number of Senators and some TDs backed Ó Murchú’s claims, there was an adjournment for an hour to see if a compromise could be reached.
A meeting involving Martin, Ó Cuív, party chairman John Browne and chief whip Seán Ó Fearghaíl was convened but failed to reach agreement on a compromise, and the party leader then had a private meeting with some of his key advisers.
When the parliamentary party meeting resumed at 7pm, Martin tried to regain control of the situation by putting forward a motion stating Fianna Fáil would not contest the presidential election or endorse a candidate.
However, Ó Cuív then told the meeting he would have to vote against the motion. In that case his position as deputy leader would be untenable and he would have to resign.
That intervention caused consternation among the TDs and Senators present. The motion was not put to the meeting, which adjourned after another two hours of fruitless debate. The issue will be back on the agenda when the parliamentary party meets again on Tuesday.
The episode is a disaster for Fianna Fáil from every angle. The leader has been undermined, the party looks foolish and any intervention in the presidential election has the potential to end in total humiliation.
In hindsight, Fianna Fáil’s surprisingly good performance in the Seanad election contained the seeds of future conflict.
The party won 14 Seanad seats which gave a considerable boost to the depleted parliamentary party, which had been slashed in numbers when just 20 TDs were elected in February.
However, a number of experienced Senators, who were elected in spite of a list of favoured younger candidates put forward by the leadership, were bristling with indignation and were only waiting for a chance to get their own back. They certainly availed of that chance on Thursday.
Many of these Senators have never contested a general election and have no intention of doing so, but they are a powerful component of the parliamentary party.
Having frustrated Martin on the presidential issue, they are likely to try again.
This poses a serious quandary for the younger TDs and new Senators, who represent any future the party might have.
If they are outvoted and outmanoeuvred by their older colleagues, they could quickly despair of having a political future in Fianna Fáil.
In the not so long run that could see the party wiped from the map.
There is an even more depressing alternative that could see Fianna Fáil taken over by some dedicated group seeking to colonise the skeleton of the party for its own purposes.
The international experience of old decaying parties is worth looking at in this context.
For instance, charismatic populist the late Jörg Haider managed to take over the declining, but respectable, liberal Freedom Party in Austria, and turn it into a vibrant but controversial right-wing force.
The same fate has befallen declining political parties in other European countries.
If Fianna Fáil cannot discover its own reasons for renewal it could end up with the equally unpalatable alternatives of dying or becoming the vehicle for forces that have little regard for its history or traditions.