Fianna Fáil in defensive mood shows its true tribal colours


ANALYSIS: A fighting spirit was evident and doubts about the leadership were kept private

PARTY GATHERINGS are supposed to be tribal affairs, where the faithful come to the well to renew themselves for battles yet to be fought.

Few, however, have been as tribal as the weekend Fianna Fáil ardfheis, where Taoiseach Brian Cowen and other senior figures adopted an “ourselves alone” approach.

Battered by poor opinion poll figures, Fianna Fáil is in defensive, worried mood, yet the fighting spirit evident from many is undeniable.

A much larger crowd than usual turned up for Friday night’s opening speeches, and while delegates were careful to avoid criticism of the leadership in public, such doubts exist in private.

Unusually, two ex-taoisigh were present: Albert Reynolds and Bertie Ahern, and delegates raucously cheered Ahern when he was introduced to them. Cowen had praised him as “the greatest politician of his generation” in a video shown to the crowd waiting for the main event.

But everyone and everything else was to blame for the situation – the Opposition, bankers and developers, the international crisis. The mea culpa sought by many was noticeable by its absence.

Ministers, conscious that they have been accused of being out of touch, spent hours talking and listening to delegates’ concerns.

In truth, Cowen faces a near-superhuman challenge, faced with a public that is suffering or fearful that it is about to do so, and which understands the crisis through strictly Irish eyes.

Cowen could, at little political cost, have called for a common political approach in the Oireachtas to the challenges ahead. But he chose not to do so, while he allowed others to indulge in partisanship.

Given the Dáil’s current partisan atmosphere, such a call for Oireachtas unity would have gone nowhere, but it would have allowed him the opportunity to present himself as a uniter.

He, and others, could have accepted some responsibility for the mistakes that have exacerbated the effects in Ireland of a global recession as bad as anything seen since the 1930s.

Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan came closest to doing so, saying: “Of course, if we could have foreseen the international crisis, we would have done things differently.”

Lenihan, it must be said, has the advantage of not having been in government when some of the decisions that fuelled the property boom were taken.

For many, however, the memory of the 2009 ardfheis will be Noel Dempsey’s extraordinary attack on the Opposition, bankers and developers.

The first is guilty of a lack of patriotism, while some of the latter two are guilty of acts of “economic treason” worse even than the depredations of Cromwell, Dempsey declared.

His passionate speech was cheered to the rafters by delegates, who desperately wanted one of their senior figures to defend them tooth-and-claw, no-holds barred.

Dempsey did himself no harm in his relationship with the grassroots in the process.

Fianna Fáil, he said, did not know about Seán FitzPatrick’s hidden loans and the breaking of rules around boardroom tables.

However, it is a selective view of history: Ireland’s banking crisis has been worsened but not caused by dodgy directors’ loans.

Rather, it was caused by extravagant lending done in full public view, and with the Government’s active encouragement, much of which was done during Brian Cowen’s period as minister for finance.

While not denying Dempsey’s sense of being wronged, one must wonder what part of Co Meath disappearing under concrete he failed to spot on his way into work every day over the last decade.

Faced with a mounting clamour for an early budget, and for obvious, easy-to-understand acts of leadership, the Taoiseach held the line, sticking to the five-year strategy decided upon in December, but one that has not been explained properly since.

Taxes will rise, but not until next year, since he still does not favour an emergency budget and he will not agree to one unless tax revenues collapse further in the months ahead.

They may well do. He faces a Hobson’s choice: spending has collapsed and tax revenues are falling, but spending would fall even more if taxes were to rise quickly.

However, even some of his own people want, or say they want, the pain now rather than the agony and anxiety of not knowing what is ahead.

Be careful of what you wish for: taxes will rise for everybody, and particularly for some of the 40 per cent of the workforce currently not in the tax net – the largest such share in Europe. Taxes on property, carbon usage and water are also knocking on the door.

“During the good times, we developed a fairer and more progressive tax system that allowed people to keep more of their own money. Everyone had a better standard of living.

“That tax model was based on continuing growth. It works best when we have high employment and a thriving economy,” Cowen told delegates on Saturday night.

In fact, the model used in the last decade could work only in a boom-driven economy. And it is not just the rich who will now have to pay.

In the meantime, Cowen has to stay in government, which explains the warmth of his appreciation in his speech on Friday night towards the Greens and the Independent TDs who support him. However, it makes it all the more inexplicable as to why he did not offer credit to them when live television cameras were on him on Saturday night.

Speaking yesterday, Cowen did not even pretend that Fianna Fáil has a prayer of winning by-elections in Dublin South and Dublin Central, as evidenced by his apparent decision to run both of them on the same day as the European Parliament and local elections.

Defeats in both are inevitable. However, losses in the local elections would be more serious, and threaten a summer of instability in the party and questions about the security of his leadership.

Despite disastrous results in a series of polls, most in the party insist that canvasses are going well – though a lack of reaction from voters can often portend truly disastrous showings.

Grassroots are furious about headquarters’ growing dominance over the selection of candidates, and many of them are on the list in the teeth of local opposition.

If the party’s vote holds up it will be because of the tighter selection rules; yet, conversely, a poor result will amplify the grassroots fury.