This column first appeared on Broadsheet.ie on July 13th. It was written before An Taoiseach summarily dismissed Barry Cowen as Minister. It looks at the continuing disquiet and indiscipline within Micheál Martin’s Fianna Fáil and concludes that the problems stem from Martin’s dogged refusal to reciprocate the party’s particular brand of loyalty… loyal-aty.
Fianna Fáil back bench TDs must now exert their influence and insist that they commission and oversee the much promised independent report into the party’s disastrous Feb 2020 national election campaign.
Like many Dubs, my late Dad had a habit of sticking an extra syllable or letter into certain words.
So, when Sheedy, Quinn, Townsend, Cascarino, Houghton and O’Leary put the ball in the net in Italia 90, they didn’t just score brilliant goals, in my Dad’s phrase they scored goalds. I won’t go into how he described the Schillaci shot that sent us home. Suffice to say that it had precious few “d”s, but plenty of “f”s, “c”s and “k”s.
Not that my Dad did it consciously or deliberately. Like others, it was just part of the Dublin/Liberties patois they grew up with.
Many Dubs, including this one, still occasionally find themselves doing it. While I can manage to talk about goals without adding the “d”, I do have one word where I sometimes find myself adding an “i” or an “a” between the second “l” and “t”, transforming the word loyalty into loyal-ity or loyal-aty… a higher form of the quality or state of being loyal.
Some may feel loyalty or even loyalaty to be an old fashioned quality – but, as we have seen with the tumult that has reigned within Fianna Fáil over the last few weeks, the absence of loyalty can have unpleasant consequences.
When I speak of loyalaty, I do not mean the fake variety where it is given uncritically or solely in the lively expectation of favours yet to come (to paraphrase The Duc de La Rochefoucauld, via Sir Humphrey in Yes Minister).
The loyalaty I speak about, and which I saw and experienced for most of my time in Fianna Fáil, runs both ways. It is as much earned as bestowed. It is offered and then reciprocated.
As a lapsed Fianna Fáil member, I should probably be munching popcorn as I watch the mayhem and telling you how it was never like that in my day. I won’t. There is no real pleasure to be had from watching a government I may not support, but still wish and need to do well, stumble and falter.
Several commentators have sought to blame indiscipline for the back biting and alleged snitching that has dogged Fianna Fáil over the past two to three weeks. They are partly right. There has been a breakdown in discipline within the party, but the indiscipline is the symptom, not the cause.
If Fianna Fáil is to have a hope of restoring discipline and thereby its future, on a long-term basis then it must first fix the root of problem, namely the absence of loyality. Let me correct that. I am wrong to say that there is no loyalaty within Fianna Fáil. There is, but it mainly works from the grassroots up. The deficiency comes when you wait for a return of serve.
As Jim O’Callaghan TD rightly said on a recent RTÉ Your Politics podcast, most people are well and truly sick of hearing about TDs who were hurt, offended or disappointed not to be made Ministers. There is nothing new about people feeling let down. An Taoiseach, Micheál Martin is correct when he observes that all new Taoisigh end up disappointing some people when the appointments are made.
But those Taoisigh, well most of them, also showed political astuteness in managing the expectations of those expecting preferment. There was precious little of this skill on show from Martin.
The problem goes back to the last time Martin reshuffled his front bench team in March 2018. As I pointed out in an interview on Morning Ireland the day after the new Fianna Fáil front bench was announced, while Martin had opted to nominate a large team of about 20 front bench members, he would in time have to whittle the 20 down to a publicly identifiable Fianna Fáil core team of 5 or 6 members.
Martin messaged me after the show to thank me for my positive comments and to agree on the need to concentrate on a core team. But it never happened. A difficult decision was delayed.
Even when a core team of 6 front benchers did finally emerge in March 2020, long after the election, to conduct the Programme for Government negotiations, it was a most inaccurate predictor of who would make it into Cabinet. Especially for those on the team itself.
Rather than critiquing Martin’s actual ministerial appointments I would rather focus on two non-appointments, which I believe shows how debased the loyalty coinage has recently become.
Both, ironically, involve the post of Chief Whip. The primary arbiter of that dwindling commodity in the parliamentary party, discipline.
The first, the appointment of Fianna Fáil Deputy Leader, Dara Calleary TD, as Chief Whip, has been widely discussed elsewhere, so I will not go into it here, except to repeat how unusual it is for a Deputy Party Leader, especially one who has never challenged or defied their Party Leader, to be treated so shabbily.
The second highlights even more starkly just how little Martin values the great personal loyalaty shown to him. His refusal to make the former Chief Whip, Michael Moynihan a Junior Minister has astounded and shocked the Fianna Fáil TDs I know. Moynihan was Martin’s most loyal and faithful lieutenant, going back even before Martin was Leader.
As Moynihan himself observed, he had “taken a lot of shit” for the Taoiseach over the years. He had done his bidding by focusing, behind the scenes, on party organisation and discipline rather than going out front as a policy spokesperson.
So, what message does his demotion from being a loyal Chief Whip send to Fianna Fáil TDs?
His personal predicament may not elicit their sympathy, but it surely raises questions about how the current Fianna Fáil leadership and backroom hierarchy value either discipline or loyalty to leader and party.
Plus, how can Moynihan’s successor as Chief Whip be expected to crack the whip with authority when that very authority has been undermined by his own leader?
All of this is before you include the extraordinary events, claims and counter claims of the past few days that has culminated in solicitor’s letters flying about and complaints being made to the Garda Ombudsman.
And this government is only two weeks in office?
While the headlines may ease in time, the underlying problems will not go away by themselves. This is unfortunate as it seems Fianna Fáil does not have the capacity at either leadership or HQ level to re-establish the two-way loyalaty and internal discipline it needs to have a chance of surviving.
Neither has Fianna Fáil addressed the problems with its political communications and messaging so wantonly exposed in its calamitous 2020 election campaign. If anything they seem to be continuing, though the appointment of Lisa-Dee Colleary as government press secretary is one positive signal that someone has realised that Fianna Fáil has a problem communicating with people under 55.
As my old friend Kealan Flynn observed on Twitter last week, contrasting messaging styles of the two main government party leaders, we have a digital Tánaiste and an analogue Taoiseach.
So, with Ministers now otherwise engaged in their departments and party HQ seemingly unaware of any problems at all, the task of restoring its fortunes will fall on Fianna Fáil’s backbench TDs and Senators. Partly because there is no one else to do it, but also because they are the ones, along with councillors, who will pay the heaviest price for not doing it.
There are two key important actions they can immediately take to commence the process.
The first is to reassert the role of the parliamentary party backbencher within Fianna Fáil. As the party’s former deputy whip John Lahart TD pointed out some weeks ago, it was shameful, notwithstanding the understandable limitations of the Covid-19 restrictions, that the Fianna Fáil party did not meet in any format for almost six weeks while the programme for government was being discussed.
The leadership’s side-lining of the parliamentary party must end. That task has been made easier however, as the shambolic ministerial appointment process now means that backbenchers are the majority faction in the parliamentary party. They can make it happen as they now have the numbers.
The second action is just as vital. Backbench TDs must insist on setting the terms of reference and commissioning the independent analysis of Fianna Fáil’s disastrous 2020 general election campaign. This was promised by Martin and party HQ as part of their effort to pass the PfG. Having a fully independent inquiry into what went wrong and how is crucial.
TDs could do a lot worse than look at the warts and all independent report commissioned by Australian Labour Party (ALP) into its 2019 defeat.
That 90-page report spares no one’s blushes, finding that the ALP had lost the election due to: weak strategy; poor adaptability; and an unpopular leader.
Two months ago I said here that I feared that Fianna Fáil’s very survival was more in doubt now than it was back in February 2011. Sadly, nothing that has occurred since has persuaded me otherwise.
The one small sliver of hope I still hold depends on backbench TDs channelling the anger of the past two weeks and showing loyalty to each other.
Only then can they force change on a party leadership that needs to grasp the third of the three truths which I said in June now face Fianna Fáil, namely that Micheál Martin’s last race as leader has been run.