Senior Fianna Fáilers hold fate of party in their hands


Unless something happens to change the party’s fortunes, it is headed for disaster

THE TIMING of the leadership challenge, or half challenge, to Brian Cowen this week was shaped by a series of happenings since Christmas.

The recent controversies surrounding Cowen’s various meetings with Anglo Irish Bank personalities was just one of the factors at play. While many in the media and the twitterati obsess on the detail of the day’s golf and dinner at Druids Glen in July 2008, the general public came away from the voluminous coverage with only a generalised impression.

The difficulty for the Taoiseach is that they are coming away from it reminded of the suggestion of a cosiness between Fianna Fáil and big business and bankers. Fianna Fáil politicians are no more likely to be golfing with business people than those, for example, in Fine Gael but of course because they are in Government, and especially because Brian Cowen at the material times was Minister for Finance or Taoiseach, these meetings are open to particular scrutiny.

The reactive, gradualist approach which the Taoiseach has taken to in communicating about this controversy – as he has done with so many other issues – has alarmed many of his parliamentary party colleagues. His reputation is at risk of collateral damage in an intense public relations battle being conducted by and on behalf of Seán FitzPatrick and David Drumm against each other.

In this incendiary atmosphere, the Taoiseach needed to be more strategic and comprehensive in his approach. He needed, in particular, to be more upfront about who he met, where he met them and when. This would have been the best means of protecting himself from the allegations unfairly being insinuated at him by some Opposition politicians and commentators.

However the primary reason the leadership issue came to a head in Fianna Fáil this week has to do with more general political developments.

The parliamentary party, diverted or dazzled by a series of robust performances by Cowen, chose not to confront the leadership issue before Christmas.

They have had time to reflect over the break. They have spent more time with their constituents and come face to face again with the extent of public anger at the party. They have also come to appreciate the extent to which that anger is focused, somewhat unfairly, on Brian Cowen in particular.

Fianna Fáil TDs have also had an opportunity to better appreciate the extent of the calamity which currently faces the party. If they doubted what they were hearing with their own ears, then they had only to look at the detail of the first opinion poll of the new year. In the RedC poll published by Paddy Power last week, party support had fallen again and it now stands at a truly shocking 14 per cent. The poll confirmed what some deputies and analysts have suspected for months – that the party’s support is at risk of freefall.

The members of the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party have also spent more time with their grassroots in recent weeks. The party has held a busy series of surprisingly well-attended selection conventions and constituency meetings since New Year’s Day.

At these events the message from the platform has been relatively upbeat and positive but morale among the party generally is on the floor. The party is in rag order and its preparations for the forthcoming election have been only rudimentary.

Fianna Fáil needs most of all to have a good election campaign but currently lags well behind the other parties in its preparations. There are no apparent signs of campaign infrastructure. The party is only now finalising selection conventions. All of the other parties are well into the a second phase of their candidate selection and their national executives are busy adding to and tweaking their line-ups in each constituency.

Even more peculiar, no Fianna Fáil Ardfheis has yet been scheduled. Traditionally the party, which had no ardfheis last year, would have scheduled one for the months before an election so as to avail of the live TV coverage and media exposure in the pre-election period.

When they regrouped in Leinster House on Wednesday to debrief after the Christmas break, the backbenchers had only depressing stories to tell each other and their focus inevitably turned to the question of leadership.

One of the questions I have been asked most often in recent weeks is to what extent Fianna Fáil could change its electoral fortunes if it were to change its leader? The answer to that question depends on so many unknowns not least who that new leader would be and at what stage – and in what circumstances – he or she came to take over.

The one thing that seems certain however is that the party’s prospects could only improve. What is also clear is that unless something happens to change the party’s fortunes and unless somebody takes real command of its election effort soon, it is headed for a real disaster.

Fianna Fáil will celebrate its 85th anniversary on March 23rd. It now seems likely that the following weekend the party could face an unprecedented electoral drubbing and after that a struggle for its very existence. If Fianna Fáil is to have a future, its senior politicians will have to take immediate steps to take it off its current fatal course.

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