Mr Ahern And Fianna Fail
The Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, was given a rousing reception at the annual Fianna Fail Ardfheis in Dublin at the weekend. Delegates had come from far-flung corners of the country, from deprived inner-city areas and from leafy suburbs to affirm their commitment to the party and to celebrate the successes of their leader. Support for Fianna Fail stands at more than 50 per cent in the opinion polls. And Mr Ahern's personal satisfaction rating is not far below the 84 per cent it reached in the immediate aftermath of the Belfast Agreement. The economy is powering ahead; the Government will have a budget surplus in excess of £1 billion this year; unemployment is at its lowest level for more than a decade and the number of people at work is growing by 4 per cent a year.
The party faithful had much to celebrate. But investigations by the Moriarty and Flood Tribunals into political chicanery, along with a plethora of official investigations into financial and tax irregularities by banks and private individuals, have generated a public atmosphere of suspicion and doubt. In addressing those concerns, the Taoiseach proposed a new code of conduct for the party in order to insulate it from the mistakes of the past and to establish a new political culture. The principle of public service, where office holders would seek no personal gain from their decisions, was the key determinant. After that, Mr Ahern identified the need for a declaration of interests; for integrity, transparency, independence and leadership in politics. All Fianna Fail politicians, at national and county level, would be obliged to apply the new standards, along with party staff and government advisers.
It was good, forward-looking stuff, designed to attract idealistic young people to the party and to set the scene for next year's local elections. Building trust with the electorate was a major theme of the ardfheis and Mr Ahern promised Government action on "the main problems facing us as a society" - drugs and crime, the farm income crisis, skills shortages, affordable housing and traffic congestion. A more caring, equitable society, based on partnership, sharing, community and family support - a new golden age of prosperity - was the vision of the future offered to delegates. A society that valued only material worth held no attraction for Mr Ahern. While cherishing our cultural traditions, we had to be open to the richness and diversity of other traditions.
Change was inevitable. Change that would flow from the Belfast Agreement, from EU membership and from our rapidly expanding, modern economy. Mr Ahern's dream was to place Ireland at the top of the world league of information technology, the internet and e-commerce, with all the implications that held for educational and social structures. In the interim, he offered his understanding to the farming community and promised further progress on issues of health, justice and old-age pensions. The kernel of the approach involves the reinvention of Fianna Fail as a modern republican party, repositioned to guard against the attentions of Sinn Fein and to chart a course into the new millennium. It is a complex and difficult task. And Fianna Fail's poor showing in recent by-elections indicates the size of the challenge. But Mr Ahern is a clever and resourceful politician. And the reception he was accorded at the ardfheis can only add to the party's confidence.