My take on Fianna Fáil’s 73ú Ard Fheis which is taking place in the RDS this weekend (March 2 & 3). This piece was written for the Evening Herald of March 3rd
For as long as I can recall Fianna Fáil Árd Fheiseana were the party conferences where the emphasis was more on the “partying” than the “conferencing”.
They were great social and political occasions where activists from all strands of society, right across the country, gathered to celebrate their membership of the party.
There they rallied; networked; socialised and renewed friendships with colleagues from other constituencies.
To be brutally honest, for many – myself included – the formal debates and motions were incidental to the core objective: discussing politics with old friends and hearing the leader’s speech.
While tonight’s address, the first by Michael Martin as leader, will remain the highpoint of this weekend’s Árd Fheis, it will come at the end of two days of serious and intense debate about the party’s future.
The issue before the Árd Fheis is that stark: the very survival of what was once the greatest modern political movement in Western Europe.
Over these two days – yesterday and today – at the RDS, members are deciding a slate of major reforms on how the party is organised and run.
Key to these is the move away from the representative/delegate model for candidate selection in favour of the One Member One Vote system (OMOV). In other words; to allow every active member in every cumann to have an equal say in selecting candidates and officers.
It is resonant of the crucial debate the British Labour Party had at their 1993 Conference. That was the year they ended the Trade Union block vote and adopted OMOV.
It was not an easy battle for them. The move to reform and modernise had been delayed for almost 14 years as they tore themselves apart with internal wrangling and infighting.
The result was three stunning defeats and three terms of powerless opposition.
Only by reforming their internal structures and systems did Labour allow itself to reconnect with its membership and, more importantly, with the people. After 14 years of irrelevance “New” Labour began to get in touch with the cares and concerns of the British people and respond effectively to them.
That is what Michael Martin hopes to achieve with this Árd Fheis. While the events of the past few days may have moved the focus slightly away from that goal, he was determined to shift it back as soon as the members start to gather in the RDS last night.
And a fair few of them gathered; with over 4000 members registered to attend by the middle of the week.
It is an indication of how serious the party’s grassroot members are about renewing their party. The number of people running for positions is another. Contest for the 20 nationally elected places on the Fianna Fáil Árd Comhairle has never been keener, with many bright, young first time candidates.
The same applies to several of the other senior positions, though the contest for the positions of Party Vice President was made marginally less intense with the withdrawals of two former party big hitters: Mary Hanafin and Éamon Ó Cuiv.
The weekend’s debates are not confined to organisational matters. The Clár contains some motions which, if passed, would herald interesting shifts in policy, including ones on gay marriage, gay adoption ending the regime of TDs’ and Senators expenses’ and reducing the voting age to 16.
There is also a slew of the more traditional Árd Fheis motions, including some Dublin centred resolutions calling for the reinstatement of the Ballymun Regeneration, Grangegorman DIT Campus and Metro North projects.
So, a great deal of serious work will be done by those gathering in Ballsbridge, but be certain too that there some socialising and banter as the faithful show that while they may be down, the party is by no means finished.
Derek Mooney was a Ministerial Adviser 2004 – 2010 and a Public Affairs Consultant and Speechwriter since the 90s