Laois-Offaly Fianna Fail TD Sean Fleming has done his party some service. His reported comments on Monday that the party is “hamstrung’’ and “over-cautious’’ should stimulate a much-needed debate on where Fianna Fail is going.
This weekend is a critical one in the life of the party.
Its Ard Fheis returns to the party’s old meeting ground at the RDS in Dublin. It is a sign of the times.
The party has had good and bad days at the RDS.
Delegates roared to the rafters there in celebration in the days when Fianna Fail was a dynamic party of government.
There were loud voices, too, when the party tore itself asunder in the aftermath of the 1970 arms crisis. It survived that trauma. Survival is now the name of the game again.
Fianna Fail needs to go back to its roots, to the days when it was truly a party of the people, representative of a wide section of Irish society.
It needs to recreate the party of the Sean Lemass years, when the emphasis was almost exclusively on the economic welfare of the Irish people.
Mr Lemass gave due deference to the unity of the country and the restoration of the Irish language. But, one suspects, he did so on occasions simply to genuflect to the aims set out by the Soldiers of Destiny at their foundation in 1926.
Mr Lemass knew only too well that without economic progress, pretty well nothing would be achieved. Hence, when he was on sick leave as a Minister, and Eamon de Valera suggested that he use the time to study Irish, he asked the civil servant, T K Whitaker, to send him some books on economics !
And so today, a half-century or so since Mr Lemass initiated the first moves to join the then EEC, we are engaged in The Economic War. Unemployment, emigration, and the human toll of the fiscal downturn, stalk the land.
It is truly awful to contemplate the lost opportunities, the blighting of the Lemass legacy, that utter sense of failure… Fianna Fail must now rebuild from the ashes of its 14 years in government.
And leader Micheal Martin must outline the template for that this weekend. It is pointless speculating on whether other parties in power would have fallen victim to a booming economy fuelled by an explosion in the property market that would rebound on us all with terrible results.
The fact is that Fianna Fail was in power for those years. And it must shoulder the responsibility for what went wrong in political terms.
True, it was badly served by those in the banking sector and by others influencing the economy. But the buck stopped on the desk of those entrusted with running the country.
The party has been ill-served by some of those who lost their seats and are planning a possible return at the next general election. For instance in one of the television documentaries, Mary Hanafin, a former Minister, spoke in terms that seemed to suggest she was not at Cabinet meetings at all!
Her attempts to scapegoat Brian Cowen for the troubles of the Government and the party were outrageous. If she is to return to the Dail, she will be expected to show more humility and accept her part in what went so horribly wrong.
Likewise, former Minister and Ceann Comhairle John O’Donoghue showed a lamentable lack of humility when he recently announced in his native Kerry that he intended putting forward his name for nomination at the next election.
He spoke at some length about his achievements locally, and all that he had “built’’ for his constituents during the boom. Among other things, the Ard Fheis will discuss redefining republicanism in keeping with 21st century Ireland.
It should prove to be a worthy topic for discussion. The core republican ethos of modern Ireland must be essentially economic.
And, here, we go back to Mr Lemass again. He was hardly a day in the Department of the Taoiseach in 1959 when he set out his stall. The major challenge at the end of that wretched decade of decay was to underpin independence with an economic revolution.
He set it in train. Subsequent governments, of different political colours, failed to keep up the momentum. Fianna Fail must stop looking over its shoulder at Sinn Fein, which eclipsed it in popularity in a weekend opinion poll.
It must carve its own distinctive niche, not looking at the public opinion dimension of every policy statement. The work of rebuilding the organisation must continue, with an eye to the local elections.
Fianna Fail will recover unless it shoots itself in the foot, again and again. The scale of that recovery is a matter of speculation.
There is a cyclical aspect to politics, where parties rise and fall at the hands of the electorate. Irrespective of the scale of Fianna Fail’s losses in the last election, that core political truth remains.
This weekend, Mr Martin must give the speech of his life.