Can Martin remake Fianna Fáil into a democratic party?

Guest post by R.K. Carty (posted by David Farrell, March 13, 2012)

March 3, 2012 may mark the second most important date in Fianna Fáil history. On the 16th of May 1926, De Valera, Lemass and their gang took a deliberate decision to create a new organization themselves. Now, eighty-six years later, Martin and Dorgan have chosen to act as midwives to a party seeking to be reborn.The old familiar Fianna Fáil was built to serve the ambitions of politicians who found themselves shut out of the parliamentary action of the time. They spread out from Dublin, organizing the countryside in their interest, and building one of the most formidable electoral machines in the democratic world. But it was a party controlled by a small political class and, it soon turned out, many of their family offspring. The candidate nomination process was closed and manipulated. Elections were paid for with private money. Leadership was the prerogative of the inhabitants of Leinster House, and a small cabinet decided policy. Party members were expected to stand at church gates for the national collection, canvass at election time and enthusiastically cheer their leaders – little more. Over time The Republican Party was transformed into The Government Party, an instrument for politicians to run the state rather than for citizens to control it.

Government parties are bound to pay the price when times are hard and they fail. Fianna Fáil, like its long-dominant counterparts in Canada or Japan, now finds itself out of favour, out of office and out of touch with its own supporters. Micheál Martin’s gift has been to recognize that the party’s 2011 collapse was more than just another electoral defeat. It was a powerful signal that the party’s old ways and its old organization had to change if it is ever to reclaim its place in Irish public life.

Unlike the founders who built Fianna Fáil from the top down, Martin has set about trying to recreate the party from the ground up. A year of touring the base stimulated a thousand proposals for change which, distilled in a dramatic reform package, was adopted by the party’s first Ard-Fheis in over three years. It is an audacious plan to convert Fianna Fáil from a political machine into a democratic, member-drive party.

At the core of the new Fianna Fáil are to be active involved decision-making local party members. These members are all going to have a direct vote in the selection of party candidates. They are going to have a vote at both new annual constituency and national policy conferences, and at an annual Ard-Fheis. And the party is committed to finding a way to involve them in the choice of the leader and any decisions to participate in a coalition government. For their part members are going to have to be active, participating in at least two meetings per year, paying a modest annual subscription and committing to new ethical standards.

To make this new democratic model work the party has pledged an “immediate radical reform” of its national executive, a better resourced and responsive headquarters staff, the establishment of a national membership register, and regular written reports from the parliamentary party to every member. Martin boasts that this is all to be paid for by large numbers of small donations making its financing the most transparent and conflict free of any Irish party.

There is no doubt about the grass roots’ enthusiasm for doing politics differently. Despite temptations to divide over how to deal with Europe, this was the issue that animated the Ard-Fheis. The debate on party reform attracted the most attention as standing-room numbers crowded into a huge hall, listened carefully to a passionate debate, and then voted overwhelmingly for the reform package.

Make no mistake – this is an extremely ambitious plan. Fianna Fáil’s new structures and processes represent a determined effort to build a very different organization, one rooted in republican notions of democratic citizenship. In truth, few political parties in the world manage to operate their internal affairs in so genuinely a democratic fashion. Indeed a famous sociological law argues that all organizations are inevitably oligarchies.

So the odds may be against this new Fianna Fáil, but then they were against the original version in its time. It won’t be easy, nor is success likely to be quick. De Valera’s party lost its first two elections and Martin may not have that luxury. Rejecting conventional opposition politics he is playing for the long term. But if his new model Fianna Fáil succeeds it may transform the way Ireland practices democratic politics.

Ken Carty is Professor of Political Science at the University of British Columbia. He has a long-standing interest in Irish politics.

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9 thoughts on “Can Martin remake Fianna Fáil into a democratic party?

  1. I suppose one should wish Micheál glic good luck, but isn’t it remarkable that when Irish political leaders are confronted with a fundamental challenge they invariably come up with the wrong, but gloriously self-serving, solution?

    In most long established democratic polities the right to govern is generally contested by two competing political blocs (stretching from the centre to the left on one side and from the centre to the right on the other) disputing the role of the private sector and markets and where the boundaries of the state should lie. But no, we couldn’t be having any of this on the Island of Saints and Scholars.

    In so far as there is any political disputation on these matters in Ireland it tends to happen within the main political parties – and generally behind the scenes and below the media’s wonky radar. In the last 20 years the PDs were probably the only faction that brought these issues to the fore. But where are they now?

    The alignment of the three main parties in the European Parliament is also informative. Labour, not surprisingly, lines up with the Socialist Grouping, though there is a vaguely comical incongruity given its usual choice of coalition partner at home. FG, its ‘Just Society’ urges and vaguely social democratic leanings long in the past, is part of the centre-right EPP. And FF, with the demise of the Gaullist rump, has found itself in the Liberal Grouping.

    In so far as the political spectrum in most EU members has any relevance in Ireland FF has always attempted to span the spectrum as a ‘catch-all’ party. FG historically attempted to do the same, but varying doses of priggishness, prudery and occasional pomposity prevented it being as successful. And again, insofar as they exist, FG has exploited the major fall in FF electoral support to colonise the centre-right and Labour has exploited it to retrieve left of centre voters who normally supported FF.

    There should be scope for a liberal-centre party in Ireland, but, perhaps, one leaning to the left, which FF could secure – particularly becasue its support that migrated to Labour in the urban areas could easily be retrieved.

    But while SF makes political hay, the atavistic urges will triumph and irish voters, once again, will be deprived of a clear choice of governance.

  2. A very fair balanced and unprejudiced assessment of Fianna Fail’s current situation.

    Though this may make me seem like pedant, I would take the author on one point in the opening para. To confirm his argument that the original FF was very tightly controlled Prof Carty states “Elections were paid for with private money”.

    But weren’t all party campaigns funded in this way at the time? There was no system of public funding like now. Indeed Prof Carty then goes on to somewhat undermine this point saying: “Party members were expected to stand at church gates for the national collection,”

    Doesn’t this make the pint that the original FF was funded largely from a large number of smaller donations – the model Martin is turning to now. One that generated large revenues for Obama in 2008 and gain this year,

    While I would concede part of Carty’s notion of an autocratic hierarchy in the party; it was not an unapproachable one, plus it was a collective generation leadership that had earned its reputation and position in the war for independence.

    This was a group whose motives and drive was seen as patriotic by the membership. Many in that membership had started out serving under that leadership in its military form in the rebellion and so continued that approach and discipline into politics. The cumann and CDC structure was essentially reworking (or should that be re-branding) of the old IRA cell structure.

  3. Intriguing. There are some interesting resonances here in the US.

    When I was a child the big city Democratic Party clubs actually provided access to power for the poor and the working class. These clubs were run, in a way, as worker-owned coops, that is, those who did the actual organizing work got to meet in the back room and make the important decisions.

    But they existed to get “the word on the street” and needs and grievances of the “little people” directly into the ears of politicians in Congress and the White House. When an individual had a need or a grievance that need, unlike now through the internet, was not just an individual calling but the “in crowd” of campaign workers controlling the votes in the neighborhood. So the politicians had to listen and had to act, unlike now when some staffer can fire off a form note, feel one’s pain, and do nothing.

    Believe me, when a Congressman or Senator called your mother or father to explain exactly what he was going to do that was a powerful lesson in local power for the children. The club had clout, and was willing to use that clout to actually help the people whose votes it solicited. The clubs could also help in getting people jobs in the private sector as well as the public sector.

    The voices rising up from the bottom, backed by the clout of the Clubs, also pushed politicians to propose, push for, and sometimes deliver real reforms in favor of the bottom half of society.

    Of course some of the clubs, and some aspects of the clubs, were corrupt. But they all had to deliver real benefits to the bottom half.

    The clubs also controlled who got to be the Presidential nominee, so their power was big.

    That all changed just as Afro-Americans began to have some clout in the club structure (a coincidence?). The club system was “reformed” in favor of impersonal and media-driven primaries, a system open to be bought by the rich. The primary system first shifted power to the prosperous suburbs but ultimately shifted power to the rich who are willing to buy candidates and policy votes. ah yes, oligarchy.

    • An eloquent eulogy on – and lament for – a world that has gone. Among other things, it highlights the extent to which the securing of individual rights, liberty, prosperity and well-being – without the modifying effect of social or communal duties, obligations or responsibilities – has broken some of the fundamental bonds that support democratic governance. And it also highlights the extent to which modern communications technology – and the ‘privatised Keynesianism’ of the last 30 years – has broken the spatially-defined communal bonds and replaced them with virtual, self-selecting, but often ephemeral, bonds that radiate out from individuals encompassing like-minded individuals without geographical bounds.

      We can’t go back, but we need to ‘re-connect’. The ‘management of democratic consent’ has become the norm, but no life-enhancing progress or removal of life-damaging constraints may be achieved without a struggle to break this ‘management’ and restore genuine democratic legitimacy. This ‘management’ is achieved via the suppression of dissent and conflict, the outlawing of legitimate protest and the manufacture of a faux ‘consensus’. First identify the ‘enemy’; then build the campaigning network of support to take them on and defeat them.

      • Briefly reflecting on my previous comment and it occured to me that it advances the total antithesis of what Micheál glic is trying to achieve.

  4. I’m glad that there was no claim about returning to some imagined ‘golden age’ that never actually existed. The flawed pedigree remark about CJH could apply in general to Fianna Fáil itself.

    Time will tell if the ‘new’ reformed party has a future but a year in and there isn’t much evidence to show how FF has changed in the sense that it still doesn’t provide an alternative example in terms of transparency. We still don’t know why FF is funded nor how candidates paid for their campaigns and still no one single elected FF rep at any level publishes receipts to verifiy their expenses.

    There is very little FF can do to change the way the country is run at the moment but there are many things FF can do to provide a real and new example for others to follow but to date it has not done so which belies claims of change?

    The real problems for FF is that even if (when isn’t a given) the economy stabilises are that even then the people who have lost so much or sacrificed so much will never forget and will never take the risk of it happening again.

    You can see the questions raised ‘FF claims to have changed but has it and do you really want to take the risk’?

    FF mustn’t be in any denial that it can follow the example of what FG did after 2002 and be all right as the cause of FG’s problems were completely different to FF and the task faced by FG was completely different too and FF will not have guilt/goodwill FG had after 2002 as people didn’t ‘punish’ FG – they were indifferent but still felt bad when the results were so bad. There were no feelings of guilt or regret when the likes of Coughlan, O’Rourke, Hanafin or Donoghue etc lost their seats – even less so given the pensions they all walked off with and that scar is picked everytime we see how tanned and relaxed they all look now. Hanafin gets a pension plus racks it in TG4 while thousands emigrate or stay on the dole – great image for FF.

    Finally, can a party be lead by one of the people who was at the centre of every single bad decision taken over 15 years and still credible claim to have changed?

  5. Interesting post from Ken Carty. With both FG and Labour using OMOV (one member one vote) for candidate selection and providing members with a direct voice in selecting the party leader it seemed inevitable that FF would go the same road. Yet, this is no panacea for organisational revival. True, OMOV supplies an incentive to membership, by giving members a voice in intra-party decisions, and makes it less likely that the important grass roots business will be controlled by a local elite (cumann chair and secretary, for example, who were likely to be the delegates, or among the delegates, to constituency candidate selection conventions where Dáil election candidates were picked).

    But at the same time, it provides a DISincentive to activism, in that now the least active member has as much input as the person who takes on the thankless cumann-secretary-type role. A requirement, which I hadn’t been aware of, that members attend at least two meetings a year as mentioned in KC’s post might get round this, though I foresee implementation problems here: in most parties that have been studied through party member surveys, including FG, the median member attends zero meetings in the typical year, and I wonder whether any party these days is likely to embark on large-scale expulsions of long-serving and loyal supporters who are deemed to have displayed insufficient zeal. Party membership in this country is already relatively low: 2.03% of the electorate compared with European mean of 4.65% according to article by Ingrid van Biezen, Peter Mair and Thomas Poguntke in EJPR 51:1 (2012).

  6. @ MG: I wonder how relevant/useful being a party member is nowadays? If you were young and thought a political career was for you, then sure. But as an ‘activist’? Who needs infantry when you have electronic drones? Easier for the twats to Twitter! Wallpaper over cracked plaster comes to mind. Or perhaps a shrivelled fig leaf or three!

    FF has artfully bricked itself into a cul-de-sac. Sitting this one out may not be the wisest thing to do. If they cannot re-capture a critical mass in Dubland they may go the way of Clann na Talmhan. Interesting times.

    Any meaningful changes are unlikely for a while. The current economic situation is not yet bad enough to trigger widespread discontent amongst voters. However if a really bad Red C came out … … say, SF 30% ; Lab 10%; FG 25%; FF 20%, sort of thing. Some Labour Lemmings might bolt. Lets see how the Household Charge and Septic Tank fee play out.

  7. I wonder are Fianna Fáil’s problems not much deeper than can be addressed by democratising the party? If we ask ourselves why Fianna Fáil was such a powerful political organisation, part of it must be down to the party’s ability to draw and hold support from across the political/ social spectrum. This begs the question, how did it do this, i.e. get support form urban and rural, working a middle class, private and public sector? One of the reasons was because once it had established itself as a ‘national movement’ it became the natural vehicle through which the politically ambitious, and those who wanted to affect policy should work (this begs another questions which I’ll ignore). It almost developed a democratic monopoly.

    But once lost, this monopoly is lost forever. The politically ambitious or those seeking to influence policy can join other parties and Fine Gael and Sinn Féin might seem the obvious choices depending on what side of the political spectrum you are. Fianna Fáil can’t beam themselves back to the 1930s, and I doubt just giving members a bit more of a say will be enough. Fianna Fáil is just an ordinary political party, and it needs to compete in those terms, with policies that are attractive to some groups in society, and with people who appear competent to run a government. It’s a simple as that. The problem for Fianna Fáil is that even if they develop attractive policies, for the time being they’ll find it hard to exude competence.

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