(Note: This blog was written a week before the findings of the Mahon Tribunal, but it is still relevant, if not as newsworthy)
So there I found myself at the Ard Fheis, and I decided to do a bit of a ‘John Bowman’ and interview as many (mostly younger) members as I could. Since I was really only there to observe and vote at the closed session on OMOV, the matter that I wanted to investigate while I was there is if renewal was just a ‘buzz word’ or was it a real state of mind amongst the membership and indeed the party in general.
Those who witnessed the passionate speeches together with the applause and raucous support which the supporters of the OMOV (one member one vote) proposals got would have been left in no doubt that this was the session which meant the most to those present. The sheer numbers crowded into room 4 alone was a taste of what was to come. The fact that OMOV was so passionately endorsed time after time by various speakers, that the constant theme from the contributors was one of being fed up at being used, ignored, and sidelined in their cumann, as well as the issue of paper cumann, said a great many things about the state that Fianna Fáil had gotten into.
It was, as I tweeted at the time, like a therapy session. Many people, and not all of them young members by any stretch of the imagination, vented long held and long suppressed views. Again and again it was the same tale which could come from any county – a local long term TD with his/her mates around them ruling the cummans with their family and friends, only giving delegate passes to those they favoured for CC and CDC meetings, not holding meetings at all, and if holding them then not sending out letters, and many other such like tales. That it was so widespread and uniform tells a tale of its own. No matter what Micheál Martin and Gerard Collins may have expressed in the hall, this could not have come as any great surprise to them, it must have been known at top level before the hustings for the leadership back in 2011. It was at that time that Éamon Ó Cuív first started making pronouncements through the national media about the great disquiet at local and grassroots levels, it was also a theme that Micheal Martin took up, and it was the theme which he referred to in this victory speech. Could it actually of been possible that members of the cabinet at the time could of seriously not known about this issue before 2011? Or were they not willing to mention the issue because Bertie and Brian at the top of the tree, while perhaps not endorsing that situation, obviously had no reason to change it?
So the rank and file of the membership now have an input into candidate elections, to the Ard Fheis, to the new policy formulation forum every year, and we have to turn up twice a year to meetings – putting the onus on cumann secretaries now to actually call meetings (which will be fun). Expect to see a lot of cumainn amalgamating, as the ghost cumainn disappear and their members (all of whom are the problem of course) get subsumed into the local real cumann and skew the numbers there in favour of the local big lad. Anyway that’s all great and we all felt great afterwards. The real fun will be at those yearly policy meetings separate from the Ard Fheis. I wonder how that will work, and in that frame of mind I went asking around the old Jurys hotel and sought out young members to see what they wanted.
The first thing that struck me (and I believe its the biggest problem we have) is that almost immediately after I spoke to one person who admitted that they were ‘quite right wing’ on economic issues. the next expressed to be quite left wing. At the same time, the right wind economic member was more or less left wing on social issues such as divorce, gay marriage (which is now party policy), gay adoption (ditto), but not on social welfare – the economic left winger was more conservative on social issues but not social welfare. Both said that they were in the party due to family connections, parents who were members, as politics was always discussed at home. This rapidly became the dominant theme of the interactions I had with some twenty people I met (and had long enough conversations with) over the night. I met nobody who joined simply because they looked at all the respective parties and judged Fianna Fáil to be the one that ticked the most boxes for them. Of course, at 3am after an Ard Fheis you are really only going to hook very dedicated party types, and party members are obviously much more outweighed by voters, and obviously it is to voters whom these questions should be more readily asked – but I still found the thought processes expressed astounding.
In the end what I found was that most of the members have very divergent economic and social opinions. In fact what I found was that if it were not for the family circumstances that introduced them to Fianna Fáil, well, they could just as well be in FG or Labour, parties that they have plenty in common with on various issues. This is something I guess you end up with under the PR STV system, as it reflects how you can have a FG, FF, Lab, SF TD representing you at any one time, but to me it is not healthy, and this identity problem will soon manifest itself in those yearly policy meetings. In fact it may come sooner, when at your next cumann meeting you tell the local members how Gay Marriage and Adoption are now the party’s political position, and they must go out and campaign for it in the next elections – see the reaction you will get from some aspects of the membership. You may also be asked why as a delegate you voted in favour of this, when nobody in your local cumann or even in your parish is in favour of it (or maybe you wont).
I would prefer if as a party we abandoned the ‘sitting on the fence’ position of ‘centre right/centre left’ and just go for a left or right position. The ‘Third way’ of right wing economics leading to left wing social justice is in my opinion an approach which has not worked, and I believe it is the reason for which we find ourselves in our current economic position. I believe being ‘all things to all men’ may get you more votes, but it is a politically bankrupt philosophy which should be thrown out in the spirit of renewal, along with all the other things we threw out at the 73rd Ard Fheis.