The past is always a difficult thing for parties to deal with. The Tories for example, wrestled for years with how they should deal with the Thatcher legacy and modernise themselves to represent a Britain that had socially changed going into the 21st century.
Closer to home this very same problem is impacting on Fianna Fail today. The party suffered an all mighty hammering at the polls in 2011 due to the economic collapse and the several austerity budgets that followed as a result.
The party has struggled ever since to deal with the legacy of the Ahern/Cowen era. At the 2012, Fianna Fail Ard Fheis the party leader, Micheál Martin made a good start by apologizing for the economic mistakes that were made in the lead up to the economic crisis. This was an important act of atonement for a party and a new leadership team to demonstrate that it had learned just what exactly it had gotten wrong.
However, since the Mahon Tribunal reported in mid-2012, the drive to move on has left unfinished business in how the party relates to its past. It was a natural response I suppose; you can hardly claim achievements from a government when the man who led it is out of the party.
Yet, what is missing from this point of view is that you cannot advance your future prospects without keeping close your past achievements. If we learned anything from the most recent UK general election, it was that the total inability of the Labour party to defend their record in government allowed their opponents the space to define it for them.
Closer to home, Fianna Fail needs to look at how in the past the party dealt with the Haughey era. The leadership didn’t throw the former Taoiseach out with the bathwater. Rather they owned the economic and social advances during his last period as Taoiseach and distanced themselves from the fallout of corruption scandals.
What the Banking Inquiry in the past two weeks has shown is that a similar process and be followed with the Ahern/Cowen government. The narrative has been trotted out that the economic crisis was a failure within Fianna Fail was challenged over and over again by both Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen as really a failure of the Irish political system.
Changing the narrative to this is critical in allowing the party to put to bed the economic crisis and therefore gain some traction on the issues facing the country today.
There was in 2012 an admittance that the party got things wrong and that was a good starting point, but not enough has been done in terms of saying again and again that the last government also got a lot of things right. As Bill Clinton once said that effective political communication meant that you “say it once, say it twice, keep saying it and when you’re tired, you still will not have said it enough.”
The real challenge for Fianna Fail going forward is that if the past is left to be defined by the government and Sinn Fein, then you will simply have a situation where it will be politically impossible for the party to construct any meaningful comeback based on past performance in government.
I know LP Hartley told us that the past is another country, but in politics often it is your past that can come back to haunt you if you don’t deal with it effectively.
The Banking Inquiry and the bullish responses from Brian Cowen and Bertie Ahern to it, illustrates that when faced with political criticism, the party can have a credible answer in response to it.
What Ahern & Cowen demonstrated at the Banking Inquiry was that politicians of all stripes had largely the same analysis of the Irish economy and very few could name the road, school or hospital they would not have built if they were in government.
In short, there is still a narrative to be put on the past and the Banking Inquiry presents a real opportunity to advance the ball down the field and remind punters that not everything from 1997-2011 was all bad and that many of the socio-economic advances made have actually stood the test of time.
For better or worse the party has a legacy and it is really up to the current generation whether the public view it in a negative or positive way.