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OPINION: Fianna Fail needs courage in this defining year

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THIS year is going to be a defining one for Fianna Fáil. Covid and Brexit have become less consuming but the challenges of the Ukraine-Russia conflict remain horrific. Apart from the humanitarian nightmare, there are implications for inflation, commodity shortages and for our food and farming communities with wheat and fertiliser shortages. Government is already preparing as it should, tackling the issue and will liaise with the farming and food community to address this catastrophe.
While these issues have to be attended to, the party too needs focus this year so it can face the future. Fianna Fáil needs to use what remains of this last year of leading government to define and action what it stands for before Fine Gael steps in.
The feedback from the general election of 2020 was that Fianna Fáil lacked identity – that Fianna Fáil’s mission and vision were unclear, having had its finger on the pulse of the people in the past. In Government, it is hard for it to distinguish itself from Fine Gael and the Greens.
But the reality is if Fianna Fáil wants to have a future, it needs to identify what it stands for now rather than what is has stood for in the past. The party is setting about that work. A Commission on the Aims and Objectives of Fianna Fáil was appointed by party leader Micheal Martin last October.  TD James Lawless is chairing that commission and he is consulting widely within the party. At our Ard Fheis this summer, the fruits of that work will be debated by us all, at last in person rather than just online.
In my own view, Fianna Fáil needs to simplify what it stands for. In his interesting book, The Rise and Decline of Fianna Fáil, Kevin Boland writes that at the outset of the party, it was the original basic aims that marked it out as different and that gave it its character as a national movement rather than a mere political party.  Those aims then were – unity; to make the wealth of the nation work for the people; that Ireland would be economically self-contained and self-sufficing; to establish as many families as practicable on the land; to promote the ruralisation of industries as opposed to their concentration in the cities; to restore the Irish language; and to implement the left-leaning democratic programme of the then First Dail.
While a lot has changed in the 100 years since – the Northern Ireland troubles, EU membership, the arrival of multinational companies, it is unsettling how much we have missed the original aims which remain relevant today. The debate within the party now needs to keep things as simple as the original seven aims. In this Instagram age, our original leaders were ahead of the time in keeping things short and simple, as few words as possible and creating happy pictures for the mind.
Those aims and objectives were clear at the time. Fianna Fáil, for whatever reason, has lost clarity about its mission and vision at times over the 100 years since. Some of that has been due to events, some due to having to change aspirations.
My own view is that those original aims are not wide of the mark and just need to be made relevant for the 21st century. Our core values need to be reframed within the context of where the party started from. The unity and independence of Ireland is as important now as a century ago. Fianna Fáil history has always been intertwined with Ireland’s economic future and place in the world. Fianna Fáil needs to establish its future by painting an economic roadmap for this island north and south while also establishing our global goal.
The original aim of making the wealth and resources of the nation for the people comes into stark focus when we look at the current energy crisis. People are suffering tremendous pressure because we haven’t made the resources of the nation work for the people.
Our small country has an enormous opportunity created by its most westerly location – offshore wind, deep-sea ports and now record tax returns. In two years in Government, we have failed to prevent massive energy price hikes and have stood idly by on the issue.
We need to reshape Fianna Fáil and government policies to tap into our natural resources to give our own people an affordable, clean form of energy for the future. This dovetails, too, with the original aim to make Ireland self-contained and self-sufficing. Offshore wind has the capacity to give us new industry that in two decades will be the same size as the full Irish economy now. The economies of Northern Ireland and the west could be transformed by offshore wind.
Establishing as many families as possible on the land and stopping the concentration of industries in the cities can also be driven by the creation of our own energy industry. If we put limits on where the energy is used and exported we can rejuvenate the areas outside the main cities and create good, high paying jobs in the remotest of areas. Being green creates the opportunities for us as a country that have already begun with the impact of Covid-19 on remote living and working.
Our aims for the next decade also need to revisit the policies that flowed from past ones. The modern equivalent challenge of free education – that Fianna Fáil instigated – is childcare and pre-school education.
Fianna Fáil needs to commit the resources that will come from offshore wind to invest in free, State-supported childcare and pre-school quality education. The Irish language too, needs to be restored as per the original aims set down, coming then after a century of the British trying to exterminate it.
Fianna Fáil shouldn’t shy away in this debate on its aims and objectives from the difficult issues of housing, health, energy, childcare, unification and accountability of the public service. Nowhere is accountability needed more than in health and we need to once and for all accept that the competing structures do not work. The Department of Health and the HSE need to be restructured. Rather than one gaming and marking the other, they should be restructured on the grounds of acute and community needs.
Nearly 100 years on from the core set of messages that started a movement, the party, to succeed better in this social media age, now needs courage, simplicity and sincerity.
This opinion piece by Barry Cowen was first published in the Sunday Independent



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