Something of a return to form for Eoghan Harris:
Right now Sinn Fein rules the opposition roost. Like a rooster it makes a lot of noise. Fianna Fail has failed to point out it neither lays policy hens or economic eggs.
Given these two gormless groups and a grim recession, Fianna Fail should be flying. But rather than rise to the challenge of change it is following Sinn Fein into a nationalist cul-de-sac. Mostly this is Micheal Martin’s fault.
After the 2011 Armageddon, Martin should have worked out what had to be done, and done it, no matter how many sacred cows he had to slaughter. And it’s all about slaying sacred cows. As I learned in the Workers Party.
Back in the 1970s Official Sinn Fein had no TDs, was lumbered by nationalism, anti-EU policies, and hostility to foreign investment. Eamon Smullen set out to kill all these sacred cows. By the 1980s the Workers Party had dumped naff nationalism, supported the EU, fully backed the IDA — and won six seats in Dublin.
Looking at the link between radical change and radical success I wrote: “If there is one iron law in Irish politics it is this. The more sacred cows you slay, the more somersaults you perform, the higher your standing with the general public. As Sinn Fein found out when it gave up the gun. As the GAA found out when it opened up Croke Park.”
And here’s the medicine he prescribes:
Fianna Fail has long been a stranger to reality. It lived on two myths: the myths of an ever-expanding State sector and the myth of a united Ireland. It claims to have changed. But it still seems tempted to drink from the poisoned chalices.
Lord Birkenhead said Michael Collins’s great strength was that he was loyal to the facts. As soon as the smoke cleared after the last General Election, Micheal Martin should have studied the facts. The four facts demanding his loyalty were the following.
First, there was only one space left on the political shelf. Fine Gael had a grip on the middle class. Labour had a grip on the professional and public sector class. But no party was looking after the coping class, which mostly works in the private sector.
Second, Fianna Fail should have finished off Sinn Fein nationalism. The success of the Queen’s visit and the failure of Martin McGuinness’s presidential bid showed that middle Ireland has no time for tribal tom-toms. Fianna Fail failed to cash that cheque.
Third, Fianna Fail should have carved out a new constituency in the coping class by (a) challenging the Croke Park Agreement (b) pledging to protect the pay of the two-thirds of public sector workers earning €60,000 or less (c) waging all-out war on the fat cats in the padded parts of the public sector — starting with the exorbitant expenses of TDs and senators. Finally, it should have slain the sacred cow of blanket opposition in favour of selective opposition. Oppose the Government on Croke Park. Support the Government on the European Fiscal Treaty. And so on.
An internal battle about dumping deadbeat policies is the fastest way to convince the public and the media that Fianna Fail wants to change. That is why Martin is making a major mistake in mirroring Sinn Fein. Far better for Fianna Fail to take up a PD- type position on Croke Park, ESB bonuses and wasteful referenda.
Mirroring Sinn Fein also has no attraction for the media. Why would a mawkish Martin be more interesting than a full-blooded Mary Lou McDonald? Why feature Fianna Fail’s version of Sinn Fein Lite when you can get the full red bull from Pearse Doherty? Go figure.
But instead of separating from Sinn Fein, Martin moves closer every day. Last week he was drooling in the Dail about the “moral imperative” of giving the people a say in the European Treaty. This populist faffing signals a party ready to be rolled up by Sinn Fein.
It might be offered in defence of Martin that he’s actually following the Enda Kenny pattern of how to rebuild a broken party and spending time re-building the party in the country. By Harris’s own analogy, change for a party so ‘long parted from reality’ does not come back to match fitness in less than a quarter of a political season.
But he’s starting to get stuck with the epithet the quiet man in Dublin. A somersault would be handy, if only to allow them to slough off some of the more stupid moves of the Bertie years.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty