The findings by Minister for Finance, Mr Cowen, that the Fianna Fáil organisation is in decline should not come as a surprise. After all, support for the party at national and local level has been falling gradually since 1989, while voter turnout has also been undermined by a succession of political scandals and tribunal investigations.
But the extent of the malaise within the organisation and the number of so-called "paper cumainn" that exist, is alarming.
Following a bad showing by Fianna Fáil in the local elections last year, Mr Cowen was appointed by the Taoiseach to identify structural weaknesses and failures, and to propose organisational reforms. With a general election less than two years away, he has now painted a picture of a rural, ageing and increasingly inactive organisation, where about one-quarter of registered members canvass at election time. In addition, vested interests at local level discourage potential members from joining.
An official reluctance to recognise the extent of the problem is clear from the fact that while Fianna Fáil carries more than 50,000 names on the party database, the report found actual membership probably ranged between 15,000 and 20,000. One quarter of the organisation is entirely inactive while 50 per cent of the branches meet once a year or less. Mr Cowen remarked acerbically that, at this stage, there are probably more members dying than joining Fianna Fáil.
The need to rejuvenate the party and attract new members has been exercising party leaders for years. A commission on the aims, objectives and structures of Fianna Fáil deliberated for three years in the early 1990s, under Albert Reynolds, before making recommendations. Reforms appeared to have little effect. Fine Gael and the Labour Party engaged in similar reviews as they sought to modernise and strengthen their organisations as Irish society became more urban and middle class.
In an effort to attract and involve people with an interest in politics, the Minister for Finance has proposed a new form of membership under which they would join and contribute to debate within Fianna Fáil directly, rather than through existing cumainn structures. A similar arrangement was successfully introduced by Fine Gael some years ago. Mr Cowen's review has identified the scale of organisational deficits within Fianna Fáil. But a new type of membership and recruitment drive is unlikely to transform that situation before the election. Competition between major parties continues to focus on the economic and social middle ground, but that elusive thing, vision, is missing.