Fr Kevin Hegarty
Fianna Fáil supporters, with a knowledge of history, may reflect ruefully that 1931 was a good year. Eighty years ago the party was on the cusp of government for the first time. The Cumann na nGaedhal government was tired after nine eventful years in office.
The financial austerity measures it had to introduce in the wake of the Wall Street crash caused its popularity to wane. Most notoriously the Minister for Finance, Ernest Blythe, reduced the old age pension by sixpence. In the Dáil Fianna Fáil provided aggressive and coherent opposition.
Eamon de Valera decided that the party needed a national newspaper to promote its viewpoint. The ‘Irish Independent’ was virulently anti-Fianna Fáil. ‘The Irish Times’ was still bound by its Unionist ethos.
So on the first Monday of September, 1931 ‘The Irish Press’ was launched. Margaret Pearse, the mother of Patrick, pressed the button to set the printing presses rolling for the first time.
The launch was a success. There was, however, on the sports pages an amazing bloomer in a newspaper which had the aim of promoting our Gaelic heritage. The report on the previous day’s hurling final indicated that the kick-off took place at 3.15.
The newspaper was an important propaganda tool in the rise of Fianna Fáil. But it was much more than that. It won a credible reputation among its peers for its accurate reportage, excellent sports coverage and significant literary input.
Patrick Kavanagh, Brendan Behan and Mairtín Ó Caidhin were regular contibutors. One of its literary editors, David Marcus, in his New Irish Writing page, gave the start to many novelists, sport story writers and poets.
The paper won a wide circulation, second only to the ‘Irish Independent’. Its sister newspapers, ‘The Sunday Press’ and the ‘Evening Press’, launched in 1949 and 1954, became the market leaders in their fields.
Up to the 1950’s ‘The Irish Press’ group was a major player in Irish journalism. However, a combination of a failure to modernise, execrable management and appalling industrial relations caused its closure in 1995.
Fianna Fáil supporters may wonder does a similar fate of extinction await the party the papers supported. Is it mortally wounded?
Last February it suffered its worst defeat ever in a general election, losing over 50 seats. Fine Gael’s performance in the 2002 election, seen as cataclysmic at the time, resulted in a loss of only 20 TDs. With the sad demise of Brian Lenihan, its most able communicator, the party now has no seat in Dublin. It is unlikely to win the forthcoming bye-election in Dublin West. Opinion polls taken since the general election, indicate that there has been no rise in support.
Mary O’Rourke claims that the party will never be as dominant again while another defeated TD, Michael Kennedy, reckons that the party should concentrate mainly on the niche market of older voters.
In recent weeks there has been much focus on the leadership of Micheál Martin. He fought a spirited election campaign in the most difficult of circumstances. His popularity in the opinion polls runs at a much higher level than his party.
He is a good communicator. Some of his supporters compare him wistfully to a previous Cork leader, Jack Lynch, the biggest vote getter in the history of the party. This is wishful thinking given the current emaciated strength of the organisation. Not even Jack Lynch, in his hurling heyday, could have led Leitrim to the Liam McCarthy Cup.
He has a reputation for being indecisive, though this is somewhat belied by his emphatic insistence on the imposition of the smoking ban when he was Minister for Health. This perception has come to the fore again in regard to the October presidential election.
He has not made it clear publicly on whether or not Fianna Fáil should offer a candidate. Having established a party committee to consider the matter, before its members had an opportunity to meet, he contacted Gay Byrne promising him Fianna Fáil support if he ran as an Independent candidate. Mr Byrne flirted ostentatiously with this unlikely proposal before turning it down.
Martin’s prevarication, coupled with the dalliance with the venerable television prima donna, has left him with the worst of all possible worlds.
The run up to the local and European elections in 2014 is crucial for the future of Fianna Fáil. Should the party perform poorly in these contests it may suffer the same fate of the once dominant Liberal party in Britain.
Such a performance might herald the break up of the once great Fianna Fáil monolith – its extreme nationalist support might go to Sinn Féin, its trade union support to Labour and other left wing parties, its middle class support to Fine Gael. As the political journalist, the late John Healy, was want to say, “we live in interesting times”.