The footsoldiers of destiny need to believe in more than power play

ON HOLIDAY in New York over the past couple of weeks, I had the dubious privilege of being able to observe at close hand the local gubernatorial race between the incumbent, George Pataki, and his Democratic challenger, Carl McCall. The campaign was remarkable for its banality.

So slender were the differences between the two that the most controversial issue at stake appeared to be Pataki's refusal to enter into a head-to-head television debate with McCall. Night after night, the local news channel was able to find little to focus on beyond this debate about a debate.

What the two candidates might have found actually to debate had they eventually made into the same TV studio remained unclear.

On returning to Ireland, the political atmosphere was positively fever-pitched by comparison. A former minister branded with the official stamp of corruption by society's new, unelected masters, the judiciary; suggestions that a current minister was also in receipt of a corrupt payment; and even rumours that the position of Bertie Ahern, the Teflon Taoiseach himself, was under threat from an internal coup New York's weary electorate must yearn for even a fraction of this excitement.

For those who enjoy politics as a blood-sport, these are heady times indeed. But for those of us who see it as rather more than this, as medium for a clash of ideas and contrasting political visions and as a means of changing society, the events of recent weeks have merely confirmed how utterly trivial our politics have become.

There is talk once again of 'loyalist' and 'dissident' camps within, Fianna Fáil, evoking memories of the dark days of the 1970 and 1980s when the party was racked by personal, factional and ideological divisions. The media buzzed last week with rumours of an impending coup, following reports of a secret meeting in Dublin designed to overthrow Ahern as party leader. But if subsequent reports are to be believed, the supposed 'heave meeting' amounted to little more than a handful of deputies getting together in a hotel bar to have a good moan about nothing in particular. No doubt there are those who, despairing of the lack of a serious political opposition in the Dáil, are anxious to hype up the level of dissent within Fianna Fáil. But assuming a clique within the party do eventually manage to mount a challenge to Bertie Ahern's leadership, what on earth practical difference would it make to ordinary voters?

The man being touted as his successor, Brian Cowen, has been supportive of the Taoiseach throughout and does not offer any political alternative. The rudderless collection of TDs rumoured to make up the dissident faction do not appear to share a single new policy idea or political strategy, apart from some vague noises about the Government being 'in rag order' and needing to stop relying on spin.

The only factor that appears to unite them is thwarted individual ambition. If Ahern himself has pioneered a shift away from any politics of principle towards that of bland affability and consensus, his critics are not exactly over-burdened with firm convictions either. Fianna Fáil romantics have always liked to hark back to mythologised eras of revolutionary idealism and social radicalism. Back in 1979, for example, one of the party's founding fathers, Seán MacEntee, compared the Fianna Fáil of the 1970s unfavourably with the party once led by de Valera, implying that the pursuit of the national interest had been subverted by a culture of greed and individualism.

"Parties and governments now have to please everyone," he contended. "Parties have to compete for votes with promises rather than policies. Personalities are more important than policies. We are becoming a nation of 'mé feiners.' "

But for all its venality, patronage and hypocrisy, even the Haughey era looks like a golden age of political substance compared to today. The factional infighting of that era was coloured at least to some extent by genuine political differences, even if divisions over the national question were more rhetorical and symbolic than real. The belief that Bertie Ahern will be able to buy off some of his enemies with a few committee chairmanships and other perks just about sums up the vacuity of the internal debate supposedly going on within the present-day Fianna Fáil.

Many of the current generation of Fianna Fáil TDs give the impression of caring about little other than advancing their own careers.

Regardless of whether or not they ditch Bertie Ahern, Fianna Fáil's difficulties are really only just beginning, and they run deeper than a few cutbacks or a few of the ghosts of Fianna Fáil past being exhumed by the tribunals. This time last year, the party was riding the crest of the economic boom and soaring in the polls, while the media focus was on the crisis within Fine Gael and its struggle to define a role for itself any longer.

But I argued back then that Fianna Fáil would sooner or later be confronted with similar difficulties, given that Civil War politics had been rendered obsolete and virtually all of the party's fabled core values - most notably Articles 2 & 3 - had been abandoned. Fianna Fáil simply got lucky in the 1990s in that when the fading drum beat of Civil War politics finally petered out completely, it happened to be the one in government presiding over an unprecedented economic boom. But "while the Celtic Tiger boom may have temporarily papered over the cracks", I contended, "Fianna Fáil will eventually have to confront the issue of what it now stands for anymore." The economy has suffered a dramatic slump in the meantime and, sure enough, the cracks have already begun to appear within Fianna Fáil.

Distancing the party from its past has been a key element of Bertie Ahern's success. The remaining vestiges of Catholic nationalism were quietly jettisoned and he went out of his way to prove that an organisation that once made single party government one of its 'core values' could successfully coalesce with other parties.

Bertie seemed to float above politics like a kind of genial uncle, his lack of any real convictions seemingly in tune with our post-political age.

But in rejecting its past, Fianna Fáil has also left itself devoid of any real core principles that it can unite around in the far more difficult economic and political climate it is now facing.

When a political party no longer has any real distinctive political identity or shared set of values, it becomes more difficult for it to command the loyalty of its members. The fact that some of its TDs are already attacking their own government in the media less than four months after returning to office following a successful general election indicates more troubled times ahead.

Some of the party old guard have questioned the loyalty of the new generation of TDs. "They are a different crowd," said one, "they are not willing to get fed the line and accept it." When a party has a shared ideology or set of convictions, there is a natural unity of purpose and coherence amongst its members. There is less need for them to be "fed the line."

The problem now is that the new generation of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael TDs have a far weaker sense than their predecessors of what exactly they are supposed to be loyal to, or what exactly the 'line' is.

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