Fianna Fáil’s internal rumblings are about its future — not its leadership – The Irish Times

The Fianna Fáil parliamentary party this week experienced an outbreak of something that had become a rarity in recent months: sharp criticism, negative mutterings and medium-level unhappiness being expressed by TDs and Senators.

For its first year in Government the party’s weekly meetings were like something you would witness at the end of the pier at Blackpool — a Punch and Judy show with a bit of cabaret thrown in. The constant disgruntlement was magnified by porous leaking to the media. To be fair, with the Dáil sitting in the National Convention Centre and with socially distanced meetings, the circumstances did not lend themselves to harmony. Still, it was all very damaging for Fianna Fáil. It really looked like it was flailing in Government.

And then came the two-day think-in in Cavan last autumn. Over a number of marathon sessions, the air was cleared and differences were resolved. There seemed to be renewed faith in the leadership of Taoiseach Micheál Martin. New groups were set to work on policies, on issues of party identity and communications. It would help Fianna Fáil distinguish itself from its rivals. Relative calm was restored. So much so that far from looking like a place-holder leader, Martin’s authority was such that his proposed move from being Taoiseach to being Tánaiste at the end of the year has gone unchallenged.

But what some people see as calm, others see as complacency and drift. The party’s recent poll performances have been poor. Many of the promises made in Cavan about new policies and ideas have not come to pass. The ardfheis has also been postponed. It was meant to be held in early June in Citywest and was being billed as a watershed event in terms of Fianna Fáil renewal. But now the hotel has been allotted to provide accommodation for Ukrainian refugees and no alternative has been found.

There are some in the party who believe that critical decisions on what the party is, and what it stands for, cannot be put on the long finger indefinitely.

Perhaps people should not have been surprised, therefore, with the motion tabled at the parliamentary party by Offaly TD Barry Cowen on Wednesday. The motion referred specifically to the party’s poor levels of support in recent opinion polls, a delay in holding its ardfheis as well as unrealised commitments made at the party’s think-in in Cavan last September.

Cowen also claimed Fianna Fáil was being sidelined by Sinn Féin on republicanism and specifically demanded that the party lay down a date for a Border poll. In the absence of the ardfheis, he called for a special one-day meeting on policy to be held on a day this month the Dáil was not sitting.

Some commentators saw it as a stalking horse move against the leadership but for Cowen, nothing could be further from the truth. He understands the various crises the Coalition has to deal with but, for him, Fianna Fáil also needs to survive and grow.

“I just felt that there’s been drift,” he told The Irish Times. “The party has to gear itself to win support and respond to issues and people’s concerns with our policies and our vision.

“There should be a huge emphasis in the party to fulfil the commitments we made in Cavan. We need a new mission, and a new vision, and our own identity as a party — as a distinctive voice in Government.

“We need policies and values that can roll off the tongue when we are talking to members and to the public. We need to be able to go with our chest out and say to people: ‘If you vote for us this is what you are going to get.’ ”

Cowen’s motion at the meeting generated a prolonged debate on the party’s identity and performance in government. Cowen is seen as a critic but what gave the debate impetus was the contribution of another former minister, Dara Calleary.

Since resigning as minister for agriculture Calleary has kept a relatively low profile. His criticism was not directed at his own Government or at politicians or at frontline workers but he railed against the system that made them the scapegoats for everything that goes wrong. He instanced the situation at Dublin Airport, the ongoing delays with passports, the cost of living, as well as school places for special education.

“There are so many services not being delivered that are angering people. The chaos in Dublin Airport was a microcosm of so many things that are not being delivered,” he told The Irish Times.

“It’s not the fault of frontline people. Higher management does not seem to be accountable and seem deaf to the impact of lack of delivery.

“It is the politicians and the frontline staff who get the blame even though, for example, we have been calling for something to be done about passports every week for many, many months.”

In the context of politics, many of these things are interpreted as sniping aimed at the leadership. But it was not the case here. This is about survival of the party. In modern politics if you don’t stand for something, you quickly become nothing.

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