FIANNA FÁIL met their long-deserved Waterloo in February but even that denouement may not have prepared some of the party’s neanderthal hardcore for the idea that they would be wasting time and very scarce resources by nominating a candidate to contest October’s presidential election.
It must have been a terribly bitter pill to swallow for an organisation that almost effortlessly monopolised the office but if there was a straw to clutch at, no matter how frail, it was the party’s acceptance of the decision and the pragmatism behind it.
This belated honesty does not, however, guarantee that the party has even a realistic prospect of nominating the successor to our next president in seven years’ time.
Even if you accept that the Government parties will fritter away support over the next few difficult years, it is not at all certain that Fianna Fáil’s re-imagining of itself will be convincing enough — or real enough — to sway an electorate who wielded the axe with such vengeful abandon last spring.
Today the party is almost irrelevant, and any further decline will make oblivion a very real prospect.
Why should anyone care?
We should care because Fianna Fáil once, albeit a long time ago, embodied some of the idealism and ambition that dramatically improved the lot of our forefathers and turned an inward-looking, suggestible, agrarian society into something that might eventually approach a modern European society.
We should care because, as those who founded Fianna Fáil 85 years ago realised, a just society is never a happy coincidence. It is the result of many things, one being an active and honourable body politic. And, because we have been without an active and honourable body politic for so long, we do not live in a just society.
Fine Gael and Labour have, by promising a wide range of reforms in how public representatives influence how the state serves its citizens and how the state does its business, have recognised this great need, but early indications sadly suggest that they are not yet ready to be ruthless or hard-headed enough to deliver real results in one Dáil term.
Unless this changes quickly and there is a dramatic acceleration in delivering or imposing change, then Fianna Fáil will rejoice; they will have been thrown a lifeline, albeit one straight from the handbook of redundant politics.
Micheál Martin must know that he is probably the first leader of his party who will never be Taoiseach, but this realisation frees him too. If he can convince the rearguard of a once great party that ideals outweigh privilege, that the purpose of politics is social not individual, that they can yet make their founders’ hopes a reality, then they might have some sort of a future.
Even if he manages all of that, he will have to convince a broader audience that the tribalism that once animated the differences between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael still has any relevance.
He, or his successor, will have to convince Ireland that we need a second conservative, middle-of-the road, middle-brow party. This may prove the highest hurdle of all and it will be a question waiting for Fine Gael when they eventually return to the opposition benches.
If he cannot, he is wasting his time and Fianna Fáil will go the way of any other organisation that squandered its relevance and credibility, as Fianna Fáil did under Haughey, Ahern and Cowen. And rightly so.
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