Fianna Fail needs to decide on its path for the future. Most of all it needs to decide who it represents according to Communications Consultant John McGuirk.
A year ago today, two of Fianna Fáil’s biggest stars were its young, attractive, articulate Senator for North Dublin, Averil Power, and it’s poll-topping, gravity-defying MEP for Munster, Brian Crowley. In the most barren era for the party since its foundation, members could point to both as examples of the party’s continued life, and its bright future.
This afternoon, it is without both. Brian Crowley could not bring himself to sit, as commanded, with Europe’s liberal left, and walked across the floor of the European Parliament to sit with the Tories. Averil Power could not bring herself to stay in a party with so many conservatives, and has walked away to plough her own, liberal furrow. Fianna Fáil tried to accommodate both, and has ended up with neither.
The referendum on marriage has exposed the fissure in the party clearly, and it must now be addressed. While the leadership were printing posters calling for a yes vote, local councillors were running adverts calling for a no vote. The party leader took a position, and the candidate in Carlow-Kilkenny refused to endorse it, while his constituency colleague announced he was voting the other way.
To people in Fianna Fáil, this can be rationalised. To the rest of us, it looks like a party that has no idea who it represents or why. With a national conflict on abortion barely simmering away in the background, these divides are only going to become more pronounced if the party continues on its present course.
If it were merely social issues, you might say that Fianna Fáil could adopt a conscience clause, a la Renua, and move forward, but that is not the end of it. This is a party whose instincts are divided on taxation, on public sector reform, on health, on foreign policy, and on almost every issue you can think of. If divisions on social issues are to the fore right now, then divisions on the EU and other issues will be to the fore later.
Irish politics is rapidly changing. There is a bold and ascendant new liberalism in the country that increasingly challenges parties and politicians to choose sides, and live with the consequences. Silence, as practiced by so many Fianna Fáil representatives over the past month, is no longer an option, for silence is only confirmation of your own irrelevance.
The point of politics, as practiced by political parties, is to win power with a view to changing the country. The point of Fianna Fáil, it seems, is to win power. What it would do with that power is anybody’s guess – and until it decides the answer to that question, it stands no chance of meaningful recovery.
The party must now realise that the time when it could be all things to all people is over. The internal war that should have been fought in 2011 may be finally about to break out, and for the sake of the party, there needs to be a clear winner.
The war cannot be about trivia – the leadership, the manifesto, internal structures. In truth, none of these things matter in the longer term. Instead the party must figure out what, and most importantly, who, it stands for.
The party can choose to compete with Fine Gael, Labour, Sinn Fein, the Greens, and any number of independents for the approval of the Irish Times and the radically liberal Dublin voters it craves, or it can choose to become a populist, tax-cutting, reforming party that fights for those who work and are overtaxed, those who feel left out of the national conversation, those who do not accept the consensus on social issues, and those who want to see their values defended, not derided.
Either choice is valid. Irrelevance, simply, is not.