Saturday Essay – Irish Daily Mail

The election posters are up: from lamp-posts and traffic lights, the beaming faces and gleaming teeth of bright young electoral wannabes gaze down upon us. They have appeared like spring flowers, all full of sunshine and that Easter-time promise of new life.

Among the profusion of eager, at-yopur-serviec faces are a good many from Fianna fail. And why not: FF is a political brand that goes back decades, for good or ill. Voters are starting – cautiously, perhaps – to trust them again. They came back very quickly in the opinion polls after the wipeout of 2011, and they are now at 22%.  The party’s logo has got bigger on the posters: no longer is it a badge of shame. All in all, quite a turnaround from two years ago when we thought that the once dominant party of the State was almost extinct.

The danger, though, is that elements of Fianna fail seem determined to turn sunny springtime into ghoulish Hallowe’en. For behind those bright shiny faces, the public keep seeing some horrible monsters making a return, creatures we thought had been long since cast out: Fianna Fail’s political undead.

In the past week alone, three of FF’s most blood-curdling zombies have returned to terrify voters. Worst of all was the ultimate Dark Lord, Bertie Ahern himself: casting his curses upon the party’s current leadership… and indirectly reminding people that, should the call come, he’s still available. Unable to abide by the ‘silence’ rule of former Taoisigh, Bertie directed his venomous fury at Michael Martin, claiming that party’s performance is ‘brutal’. Nothing about how things got to be that bad: the artificially-inflated boom, the suicide jibes to concerned economists, the barefaced lies on oath at a Tribunal. Nothing about how life is for the rest of us, or about how the country is suffering. It’s all just about him and the party – his party – as if it was a personal plaything. He talked about people ‘working their toenails off’ on the party canvass. Thanks, Bertie. The rest of us are just hanging on by our fingernails, with the economic mess you left us.

His ‘brutal’ description of FF was directly echoed by Mary Hanafin, another Hallowe’en ghoul, and former FF Minister from the Celtic Crash era, who now wants to return as if nothing had happened. Again, it’s all about Mary’s personal ambition and how she misses politics, and how still she had so much to contribute. Absolutely nothing about us, and the banjaxed country, and maybe doing something to recompense for the mess her Government created. It’s priceless! You might ask whether these people have no self-awareness: then again, central to the zombie lore is that the undead are themselves unaware of the horrors of their condition.

Then we heard that another former FF Minister, Noel Dempsey, is to spearhead an agency to ‘revitalise’ Temple Bar. ‘Revitalise’, indeed. At a time when we need fresh and original personalities to transform of all aspects of our country, from the national finances, to the capital’s cultural quarter, here we are instead,  getting a mummified ex-Minister from the old regime that led us to a bankruptcy and bailout for which we will paying for generations.

It’s not that we begrudge the veterans of the former Government the right to a new career and to make a living – although they hardly need the money, given their pensions, Dempsey’s included. After all, former Ministers Barry Andrews and Peter Power have both gone on to new roles as directors of Goal and UNICEF, respectively. Some may say, ‘well those people weren’t directly involved in the overheating of the economy and the collapse in our finances.’ But then who in FF actually was? Bertie Ahern is denounced, but he could say he had already left before the damage really set in. Brian Cowen was there for the collapse, but he could say he had inherited the mess and was poorly advised by dozy regulators and so-called public servants. They are all the blame, or else none of them are.

Of course, it could be said that the quiet Dempsey was not exactly the reckless type: but he knew which side his bread was buttered. And he was the Minister who infamously told us that the IMF were not coming into the country, when Chopra and the guys were practically at Dublin airport. And for that he will always be remembered. So either Dempsey was bluffing then – or was misled: both of which would make him just the sort of person who should be encouraged to continue enjoying his pension and not be coming back to head up the transformation of our ‘artistic capital’ – and remind people of his party’s past.

Still, at least Dempsey is staying away from Fianna Fail. So many of these FF faces insist on crawling back into the party itself, and cannot see how this will get the public’s backs up and damage FF’s chance of recovery. Apparently, former Minister Mary Coughlan has been back on the party circuit, even after all the punishment that she (and we) have been through. But even if she is a masochist, we aren’t – so please let it stop. But no, it is the utter blindness of self-entitlement. Most hilariously appalling, most akin to some awful Hammer Horror b-movie, is the attempted return of John ‘The Bull’ O’Donoghue in Kerry, which had even brassneck FF’rs gobsmacked. John is the former Minister who was practically lanced in the Dail chamber after revelations about his large staff and extraordinary expenses.

But it shows how addictive politics is for these people. They cannot stay away. They need the constant attention fix and adrenalin of intrigue: it’s all that makes them feel alive. They try to claw their way back, regardless of the effect on themselves and those around them. And like lumbering zombies, they are brutally indifferent to the effect on the new party’s image as it tries to recover from the very likes of them. These well-pensioned walking dead just don’t realise that to the voters at large they are still toxic – and a reminder of our most shameful hour. Politically speaking, we thought we had politically killed them at the last election: but they won’t stay dead! And in clambering back, they are endangering the renaissance of the bright young things.

Perhaps the people around them sing a different song: but they seem painfully unaware of the impact that those great Fianna Fail names have on voters elsewhere. Barry Cowen TD might say ‘I am not my brother’s keeper’ but the fact is that every time he appears on TV talking about the water charges, he is a living, breathing reminder of the worst Taoiseach in our history! Likewise, Anita Lenihan, who is being considered for the Dublin seat vacated by her late brother, Brian. She may be a brilliant talent: but it is surely too early to be considering the introduction of another Lenihan, and a further association with the old regime. It may sound harsh, but politics is all about image and perception. The same goes for Sean Haughey. Apart from your tarnished name, what do have to offer that’s actually new and different? Why not give someone else a chance?


Michael McGrath TD (above), as party leader, would represent a clean break with the past


Fianna Fail needs to be ruthless about purging these past associations and stopping the attempt return of the zombies. It has plenty of young, unsullied talent to move into the future with. It may seem tough on the political veterans but this is about saving an entire party. And even if these re-upholstered people will do well locally, that would be worse, for the national message would be: ‘we haven’t changed, you see, it’s still the same people’.

The difficulty, of course is that the likes of Hanafin and O’Donoghue could always say ‘well, look at Willie O’Dea and Eamon O’Cuiv. Why shouldn’t I come back, when they are in the parliamentary party?’ They feel to see that, in national terms, Dev Og and Slick Willie could well be the very thing that’s holding the party back.

Equally, however, the wannabe returnees could say ‘look at the party leader himself, Michael Martin. He was there, at Bertie’s side, when the gleaming city of the boom was crumbling to dust. He campaigned vigorously for him in 2007, even when it was clear that Ahern and the truth were on different planets. He was a senior Cabinet member as Brian Cowen pushed us inexorably on the path of self-destruction: yet he wants credit for having bailed out at the last minute. How can Martin tell his former Cabinet colleagues that the old FF figures are discredited – but then stay in the top job himself? And this is the really awkward one. For the reality is that it perhaps it is Martin himself who is holding the party back. Honourable and hardworking as he is, he is still, after three cathartic years, associated with ‘that time.’ And the party has now woken up to the fact that maybe its Martin who is keeping them from growing beyond 22%.

Fianna Fail needs to learn from history. It has always been keen to seek electoral strategy advice from the US: perhaps it would do better to look at some electoral history from our near neighbours. In the UK, the Tories only got back to power once they had wiped out all traces of the discredited John Major government: a government which, like Fianna fail, had plunged its epopel into economic collapse. Only when the top guys in the Tory party could all say ‘I wasn’t there’ did the voters finally re-engage… some 14 years after they were previously ejected from office.

The reality is FF needs to get more completely new faces on the map. And it also needs every one of its top people to be able to say about the events of 2007-2011: ‘I wasn’t there’. That includes, unfortunately for Michael Martin, the party leader himself. Until then, FF will be a political zombie too: not actually dead… but not actually alive either.