Putting a narrative on your political past.

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.

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  • barryrichards

    FF can spin all it likes. Charlie McCreevy ushered in the era of light touch regulation.. From 2005 -2007 Fianna Fail increased public expenditure by 25% as it sought to pamper the electorate. It paid dividends for the Party. It duly won the 2007 General Election. So what we had got was light touch regulation which allowed the banks to engage in an orgy of lending.. The huge rise in public expenditure was funded by taxes from the booming property market. This was a highly irresponsible policy as such taxes would wither on the vine with a slowdown in the property markets. That duly happened. So what we got was a banking crisis and a massive rise in public expenditure which could not be sustained when the taxes from the property bubble collapsed. This created the crash. This culminated in the infamous bank guarantee and eventual arrival of the Troika. The country was left by FF with a National Debt of €170 billion and a budget deficit of €18 billion and a loss of economic sovereignty as the Troika took up residence. Charlie McCreevy, Bertie Ahern , Brian Cowen and FF supported by the PD lapdogs are responsible for the Crash.

    Please remember these famous words at the ICTU Congress from Bertie Ahern in 2007. He attacked those allegedly talking down the economy:

    ‘Sitting on the sidelines, cribbing and moaning is a lost opportunity. I don’t know how people who engage in that don’t commit suicide because frankly the only thing that motivates me is being able to actively change something,’

    Fianna Fail and its media supporters of whom there are many can spin all they like. Facts are facts. Postulating about what the opposition might or might not have done is just an attempt to spread the blame. The buck stops with those IN POWER who took the key decisions. The opposition was not in power and did not take the decisions which effectively bankrupted the country. It is the government’s responsibility to maintain a prudent level of public expenditure.. Good governments resist demands for excessive rises in spending. The FF governments from 2002-2007 failed abysmally.
    That’s the real narrative.They blew it.

  • james

    For narrative, read cover story. Or in the case of SF, all too often, read alibi.

  • Granni Trixie

    SF is the most obvious example of a party which has not dealt adequately with its past but which does not appear to be suffering at the polls. Then there are unionist parties who also seem in denial as to their past of sectarian governance….some on the wane,some not.

  • Robin Keogh

    The saving grace for most parties in the South rests in how the individuals rate with their constituents on a local or personal level. In rural areas in particular, candidtates can be well known so more people are likely to vote for that ‘decent fella’ rather than consider with any depth the respective parties at national level.
    Fine gael getting wiped out post the 2002 general election and Labour’s demolition after the ‘Spring tide’ dried up in the nineties, were regarded as terminally destructive for both parties but as we have witnessed they both bounced back. Similarly, Fianna Fail’s crushing at the 2011 election was more a raction to events of the time rather than a permanently destructive hit.
    Fianna Fail will creep back up into poll position due to the work of local reps on the ground, Martin’s connection with the Bertie and Cowen governments will act as restricting force to some degree but the party should easily reach mid twenties at the next election. In the short to medium term we are unlikely to see Fianna Fail get back to the dizzying heights of 40plus percent at elections.
    The growth in support for parties of the left such as Sinn Fein, PBPA, Socialists etc along with the arrival of two new parties Renua and Social Democrats and not forgetting independents suggests that the two and half party structure in Iirsh politics could well be gone for decades if not forever.
    Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour have been the traditional parties of governemnt for one hundred years. Ireland is now one of the richest countries in the world so it would be ridiculous to suggest that all the above parties have not contributed in some way to that success. However, voters are concerned with now and the recent past, Fianna Fail crowing about thier sucesses particularly during the Haughey and Berite years is unlikely to significantly cloud the memory of Haughey’s corruption and Bertie’s mishandling of the economy. Any attempt to do so will be well handled by their opponents.
    Crucially however, Fianna Fail have on their side the biggest media organisation in the country; Independent News and Media. They will work hard over the next months pushing Fianna Fail’s credientials while demonising the left. Moreover, support for the combined left sits at around 25% (33%) if you include Labour. This is unlikely to change, in fact Sinn Fein will do well to get 15% in the next election if INM have their way. Martin has stated he has no intention of doing business with either FG or SF, this could force more votes his way or it could have the opposite effect and damage his transfer potential (as seen in the CK bi-election).
    Its unlikely that voters will respond to any attempt by Fianna Fail to sell their past sucesses. The pain of recession is still being felt nationwide and any attempt to portray themselves as a party for the people might well be met with disdain and disbelief amongst a large section of the population (Particularly the younger age groups and Urban citizens). They will have to rely on the donkey work of their counsellors and candidates on the ground. This is where their strength is and this will be their saving grace.

  • mickfealty

    I think James has the most telling criticism (http://goo.gl/foOs0C).

    Spin = Push, and the act of ‘putting’ is very much a ‘push’ concept (http://goo.gl/5Mnzhw), which (at least on its own) doesn’t work any more. Or let me say that it doesn’t work functionally unless people are prepared to tolerate the cognitive dissonance (https://goo.gl/KUvQ9) ‘going up to 11’.

    ‘Developing’ a narrative may sound like a fine distinction but if you want a robust story for the nano second news cycle, you need to invite participation in the development of any narrative. Simply acting out of a notion of authority which does not go down well or effectively in the new ‘pull’ environment does not suffice.

    So for instance, what is the response to Barry’s complaint about Charlie McC? You can pretend he didn’t say it, or dismiss him as a political opponent (the fact we are getting rather used to such tactics doesn’t mean to say they work beyond the arc of true believers).

    FF’s centrist genius has always been its resilient capacity to appeal broadly to Irish public opinion, even people who don’t necessarily like the fact they’ve felt compelled to vote for them.

    That said, I think you are right to talk about the need for a narrative and one that avoids the awful mistakes of UK Labour in the last five years (in which it has let Ed Miliband slag off the party’s longest period in government and seen many capable people leave because of that culture war ethic).

    What’s missing is vision. Not just in Ireland and the UK, but almost everywhere there’s a long established democratic institution. IN the absence of such vision is also an increasing attractiveness attached to the demagogic simplifiers who will promise everything just to get into positions of power.

    In consideration of this rather pressing problem, I humbly suggest that narrative is not some fancy cover story for tricking your way back into power, but a realistic promise of change once you get in there. Indeed the longer term narrative consists more of the actions done than the promises made on the proverbial road to Hades.