Since Martin took over, there has been a much vaunted talk about returning to core principles which were supposedly embodied in the cumainn of the party. The problem with this approach is that the cumainn have been shattered by the events of the past 20 years. In Limerick, Willie O’Dea’s control of it has brought the organisation to its knees- in the space of 20 years it has declined from 5 cumainn across the city to half a cumainn, which doubles as Willies canvassing team, plus a few assorted hangers-on. In Connemara, FF is nothing more than drinking buddies of Fahey or O’Caoimh, or hangers on of assorted councillors like Séamus Walsh. FF has been reduced to a motley collection of localised electoral machines similar to Clann na Talmhan when it broke up.
The problem for FF is that the class which made up its base has disappeared. FF was founded on a base of smaller rural farmers who were opposed to FG but who were conservative and catholic nonetheless. That class has disappeared (more or less) forced out by emigration or the sheer economic problems of trying to run a small farm in an area of poor land- one need only take the example of the BMW counties which were always FF strongholds until recently. Their urbanised descendants would generally have continued voting FF (something which perhaps explains the problems Labour had in the capital until recently), but as time passed the connection with roots waned and class issues came more to the forefront. This could be papered over by FF resorting to traditional catholic positions (as they did in the 1980s) so long as the Church remained a political force, or through posturing as an economically competent and social minded populist party (Bertie and the bubble generation) when these traditional allegiances waned, even as the stench of corruption remained strong.
The problem is now, where are FF going to rebuild and what principles can they adhere to that might give them a niche in the Dáil and the prospect of recovering? FG are a hardline Thatcherite party (for what is all this talk about ‘strong leadership’ but wistful day-dreaming about the good old days when Maggie smashed the unions), Labour are neo-liberals with a social-democrat veneer, SF have staked out the nationalist /republican vote, and the catholic fringe has been reduced to a handful of nutters who think FF are pro-abortion pinko commies or who are too old to provide a viable future base, while the idea that FF could be a credible opposition force challenging the government on economic or political management (ie a revert to the ideology of power and its competent exercise) is ludicrous. Given that the base on which they were founded has deserted them, it seems to me that FF will disappear and that it’s only long term future is as individual constituency machines for politicians of the Healy-Rae/McConalogue variety.