FF presidential play shows party has same old problems

AS A CORK man, Micheál Martin would have done well to remember a bit of Fianna Fáil’s local history in his recent handling of the party’s presidential strategy.

In the 2004 European elections, party headquarters ordered Brian Crowley to carve up Munster and seek first preference votes in Cork only, leaving Kerry, Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford to running mate Gerry Collins.

Crowley was having none of it and publicly spoke out about the strategy.

“People should vote for candidates in order of preference and that is the only type of democratic electioneering I will participate in, and the one that is for the long- term good of the Fianna Fáil party,” he said.

While Collins lost his seat, Crowley went on to not only top the poll but become Ireland’s highest ranking MEP.

The moral of the story is that Crowley does not take any nonsense from the party hierarchy. And it wasn’t going to be any different with his presidential ambitions.

If Martin thought Crowley would step aside without a fight, to make way for a “celebrity” independent candidate then it was a big miscalculation.

Instead, the Ireland South MEP and one of the party’s most successful vote-gatherers left a number of questions hanging over Martin’s leadership when he abandoned his bid for the party’s nomination.

Firstly, he said the party was “divided” on how to approach the presidency — something Fianna Fáil TDs openly accepted.

Crucially, Crowley’s remarks subtly undermined Martin’s approach to rebuilding the party: “If you are a political party, if you are serious about being a serious national movement you should be fighting elections.

“It shouldn’t be about your chances of success, it’s about your desire to put forward a view point, an idea, a vision if you want to call it that, for what the future should be. You should be proud of what you represent.”

Those close to Martin, who were opposed to the idea of putting forward a candidate, questioned whether Crowley was ever that serious about running.

One said that, apart from sending a letter, he never canvassed the support of TDs and senators.

Referring to the publicity surrounding the withdrawal, one TD said “if he really wanted it he would have made it next to impossible for the party to say no”.

But since the start of this week, those close to Crowley began to express their anger over how the issue was being handled, particularly that other TDs had been publicly stating that the party should not put forward a candidate.

Up until minutes before the statement was issued by Crowley yesterday, party TDs opposed to his candidacy were unaware it was coming.

Many now believe it was a missed opportunity not to put him forward.

He never endeared himself to the party hierarchy.

He resisted attempts to move Fianna Fáil to a different grouping in Europe and was perceived as not having campaigned vigorously enough during the Lisbon referendum (when Martin was minister for foreign affairs).

In a sort of punishment he was threatened with a running mate in the 2009 euro elections.

But whatever his relationship with head office, Crowley has been a continuous poll-topper since he was first elected in 1994 at the age of just 30.

“In every election I always out poll the party percentage, so there are other people who like what I stand for and represent,” he said.

He was never a TD and so does not have the same baggage that could come with other potential Fianna Fáil candidates.

And he has a personal likeability factor that party members believe would have got him far in the presidential race. Even as he slated his leader on RTÉ news last night, he managed to present it in a way that showed there was no personal animosity.

Recent polls, which also included broadcaster Gay Byrne, showed his support at 13% — joint with the Fine Gael candidate, Gay Mitchell, who had the benefit of weeks of campaigning behind him.

The party grassroots or what remains of the party’s hard-core group of supporters were never entirely comfortable with the leadership’s strategy to overlook one of their own in favour of supporting a celebrity candidate like Byrne.

Not only was it a gimmick to piggyback on someone else’s popularity, but the strategy showed a lack of confidence and vision by the party struggling to find relevance.

Crowley reflected the views of many ordinary party members when he spoke about his decision.

His words have not only widened divisions in the party but will prompt tense debate when the parliamentary party gathers for a meeting next Wednesday.

And one source said it’s likely to create difficulties for the party in Munster — the leader’s own back yard.

Crowley would have put up a good fight and a good polling would have helped efforts to rebuild itself.

Fianna Fáil has been left with a headache not just over the presidency, but rivalries, back-stabbing and divisions for which it was famous in the past.

Martin’s “new” Fianna Fáil has gone back to the same old problems.

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