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.