What once was a badge of real and justifiable pride has, for many, evolved into a source of shame and embarrassment, probably most frequently expressed by comments such as “my father/mother would turn in the grave”, or “I hate to think what my mother/father would think of them all”.
How did we get to this sorry state? Whenever the question is asked, names are immediately rolled out, depending on who one’s particular favourite/least-favoured may be, and blame laid at their respective doors for all the party’s difficulties and, while we’re at it, all of mankind’s vicissitudes as well. As ever, reality, and a thorough analysis, indicate otherwise. All the finger-pointing in the direction of Dev, Lemass, Jack, Charlie, Albert, Bertie and Cowen, while not entirely misplaced, would be more appropriately directed at the mirror first; while those of high-profile (leaders or others) must carry the major portion of the blame for the crisis in which the party now finds itself, each and every rank-and-file member must ask of themselves some hard questions, starting with “what brought me to describe myself as a member of Fianna Fáil?”, and “have I done everything which could have been reasonably expected of me to justify my membership of Fianna Fáil?”. For too many of them, their honest answer will be to the effect that they joined the party for their own selfish personal purposes, and that they haven’t pulled their weight in the context of real political activism.
A reminder is necessary of the critical juncture at which Irish society finds itself — and I’m not referring to the specifics of the political, religIous, economic or banking crises, any one of which, in it’s own right, would be enough to command the permanent attention of the political establishment of the time. What I refer to, however, is the total, or as near to total as makes no difference, collapse in society’s confidence levels in the traditional pillars of our society — government, church (Roman Catholic), and banks/commerce. It is well accepted that the confidence of society as a whole has been gravely undermined, but the raw material of that confidence is trust, a quality impossible to engender without levels of honesty unseen in public life for generations. Honesty is undoubtedly the basic prerequisite of any reconstruction strategy, and that applies to the local cumainn as much as to headquarters in Mount Street.
While I write in the context of the current hiatus concerning the leadership of An Taoiseach, I believe it appropriate to stress that this is merely one of any number of problems to have beset the party for the past half-century. From the inception of TACA through the battle for succession to Lemass in the 1960s, right through to the debacles of the tribunals, be they Beef, Moriarty or Flood/Mahon, the party has been seen, in the public eye at least, to have moved from the welfare of the workers, shopkeepers and small farmers of the 1920s and 1930s to that of the habitués of the infamous Galway Tent of recent years. Napoleon said that the primary quality required of his generals was luck, and if that’s the case then, regrettably, Brian Cowen wouldn’t have risen above the rank of private in his army. A palpably decent and honourable man (and colleague), his has been the extreme bad luck to inherit not only the “perfect storm” of external circumstances, but also to reap the whirlwind of decades of internal mismanagement within the party. A half-century during which the politics of the soft-option reigned supreme, and where the fundamental political order of country before party, before individual, was turned on it’s head. The false primacy of personal political celebrity, over party, over country, was asserted, with the cataclysmic consequences we’re now enduring as the reasonably forseeable outcome.
All is not lost yet, however. There remains, at all levels within the party, a sufficient core of dedicated individuals capable of resurrecting Fianna Fáil from the abyss which confronts the party. Notwithstanding the fact that public confidence in them is at an all-time low, and that they are more often the subject of public ridicule rather than respect, a recovery is not beyond them; such a task can only be undertaken, never mind achieved, if the first piece of equipment used is that mirror to which I referred earlier. Honesty is the fundamental requirement, and patience with it; patience to wait for as long as it takes for trust to begin to permeate again through the ranks of the party at first, and then within the ranks of the electorate in their attitudes towards Fianna Fáil. Confidence, that elusive and utterly fundamental quality, is a long way off.
Fianna Fáil, ‘the Republican Party’, was founded on republican principles of basic equality. At that time the primary manifestation of those principles was through confronting the British, the primary source of inequality on this island. The Good Friday Agreement has democratically altered that particular issue fundamentally. Irish republicanism is no longer about “Brits Out”, but it’s still about equality, and it’s about the modern-day equivalent of those workers, farmers and small shopkeepers, and not about the denizens of a tent at Ballybrit; only if we return to our roots can we be ourselves again.
The natural order of country before party before individual must be restored, and we must be patient — very, very patient.
* Jim Glennon is chairman of Edelman Public Relations and a former Fianna Fáil TD and senator