|Is Sinn Féin set to assume the leadership of Irish Republicanism following Fianna Fáil's disastrous General Election and inept handling of the Presidential campaign? Martin McGuinness's entry into the Presidential race is a bold move suggesting that even in the new era of peace and reconciliation Sinn Féin is prepared to defend its record of support for the armed struggle.
The contrast with Fianna Fáil could not be more stark. That party has accepted the media's view that it is a "toxic brand". Its leader refused to stand a candidate and, worse still, solicited a chat show host to "sort of" represent it. After a few days preening himself Gay Byrne decided it would be too much trouble: a humiliating rejection for a once great party.
The cause of Fianna Fáil's collapse did not begin with the Presidential election; or the last General Election; or even when the IMF/EU was called in. Its provenance can be traced to events, which long preceded that date. The character of a political party—no more than a person—is not revealed by the mere fact of experiencing a crisis, but by how it deals with it.
Although some of its leaders such as Martin, Lenihan and Cowen showed some fight before the last General Election, their voices were disembodied because the most successful democratic political party in Europe had lost its self-belief. That is the only conclusion that can be drawn from the Party's electoral collapse.
It could be said, and has been said in this magazine, that the media was biased against Fianna Fáil and indeed against the State itself. But the Redmondite Independent Group and pro British Irish Times have almost always been anti-Fianna Fáil. What changed is that Fianna Fáil itself disowned its own history, accepting without demur its rewriting by others.
There was a time that Fianna Fáil had its own media. However, the moral collapse of the Irish Press long preceded its burial in 1995.
The event which caused the long-term decline of Fianna Fáil was also the largest scandal in the history of the State because it struck at the heart of the very existence of the State and how it viewed itself.
In 1970 the Lynch Government was engaged in a covert operation to help Northern Catholics defend themselves against Loyalist mobs. The British discovered the plan and Lynch panicked. The policy was abandoned. This alone would have caused demoralisation, but worse was to follow. Lynch pretended that the policy never existed and put some of those charged with implementing it on trial.
The jury found the defendants innocent since the evidence clearly showed that their actions had been authorised by the State itself. To have found otherwise would have been to believe that the State was subject to a higher legal authority than itself. That was the position that the Republican Party arrived at under Lynch. Its abandonment of the Northern Catholics was the very least of the damage done. The latter were forced to rely on their own resources and now in the form of Sinn Féin have "come down here"—to use Micheál Martin's phrase—to threaten the very survival of Fianna Fáil.
Fianna Fáil adapted to the moral collapse of 1970 and pretended that what happened had not happened at all. Since then it has been living from hand to mouth and has allowed the political agenda to be determined elsewhere. Competence in running the economy has not been enough. When the economic tide turned the Party was left with nothing.
For a brief period the Party was reinvigorated by the accession to the leadership of one of the defendants in the Arms Trial. The grassroots of Fianna Fáil backed Haughey as leader and helped him retain power in the face of the heaves instigated by the tenacious but aimless Lynch wing of the Party. However, it appears that the professional politicians on both wings of the Party decided after Haughey that the grassroots should never have the same influence again.
The Head Office reasserted control and the Party organisation was undermined by a professional apparatus loyal to individual politicians. After Reynolds resigned as leader Ahern and McCreevy decided that the local organisation would be overruled and fewer candidates should stand for election. The result was that the Party managed to increase the number of seats with a diminishing share of the First Preference vote. However, the short-term electoral advantage was only achieved at the price of a further weakening of the Party.
At this conjuncture Fianna Fáil is at its lowest ebb and Sinn Féin appears in the ascendant. However, it is too early to say that the former is finished even if the possibility cannot be discounted.
The current Government has been extraordinarily lucky. External events have contrived to consolidate Fine Gael's support. It is possible that Fine Gael might replace Fianna Fáil as the party of the State. However, Fine Gael has yet to make any hard decisions. Everything was laid on for it by Fianna Fáil following the passing of the last budget.
Following the Donegal by election Sinn Féin's support levels reached a plateau. Its leaders have a very superficial understanding of politics in the 26 Counties and it is this weakness that is preventing it from evolving from being merely a protest party.
If Fianna Fáil is to recover it will have to rediscover its self-belief. Since the General Election the Party has engaged in a period of reflection. This has taken the form of accepting that "errors" occurred (though their precise nature is never specified). But it is in danger of learning the wrong lessons. Party organisation is one element of Fianna Fáil's renewal. It is necessary but is not sufficient and is certainly not where the problem is to be found. The grassroots must have something to believe in. The Party can only recover if it defends its pre-1970 legacy, which is in effect the era of de Valera. It also must defend against unjust attack the elements which have gone into the making of the nation: the Republican legacy, the Trade Unions; the Public Sector; the GAA; and the Catholic Church.
In the meantime it will have to live with the fact that many of its erstwhile core supporters and grassroots members will probably vote McGuinness for President.
C O N T E N T S
Fianna Fáil And Sinn Fein. Editorial
Germany: the problem/solution. Jack Lane
Cenotaph. Donal Kennedy
Readers' Letters: What About The Boundary Commission? Tim O'Sullivan
Reply. Jack Lane
Two Obituaries. Wilson John Haire
English Thieves And Dublin Castle. Conor Lynch (Part 1)
Poems. Wilson John Haire
How Long Can You Maul The World; Richard Holbrooke; Droning On; Walking Backwards For Justice
Germany: Return To Planned Economy, as Christian Democrats re-discover themselves. Philip O'Connor
Shorts from the Long Fellow (O'Toole On The State; O'Toole On McGuinness;
McGuinness For President; Irish Times Results; No Presidential Candidate)
A President Unpartitioned? Editorial
Items From "The Irish Bulletin" Of 1919-1921. (Part 3)
Liberal Unionism At The End Of Its Tether. Brendan Clifford (Part 2)
Seeing Clearly.... Jack Lane (Reply to Desmond Fennell)
Es Ahora. Julianne Herlihy. (Puritanism And the Modern State, continued)
The Presidency—real choices. Jack Lane
Naval Warfare. Pat Walsh (Part 14)
From Sing Sing to Sing And Sing, the 1934 Larkin Affidavit. Manus O'Riordan
Biteback: Scotland & Independence. Eamon Dyas.
John Redmond. Nick Folley (Unpublished letters)
Does It Stack Up? Michael Stack (Free-Markets; The Euro & Speculators; Joseph Connelly, recent reading
Labour Comment, edited by Pat Maloney:
A Model Democracy?