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Fianna Fáil think-in will be very different to party meetings of previous years

The Fianna Fáil think-in gets underway today in Cavan, with Micheál Martin likely to again face pressure from his own party colleagues.

FIANNA FÁIL’S PARTY think-in which begins in Cavan today heralds two things: the start of the party conferences for the larger political parties as well as the new autumn term of politics. 

Last year there were no party think-ins due to Covid-19, with political parties instead opting to hold their respective events over Zoom.

Many hope the return of the party gatherings will mark the return to ‘normal’ operations in Irish politics, with the focus shifting away from Covid towards other pressing issues like housing and health. 

However, this year’s two-day think-in at the Slieve Russell Hotel will be very different to party meetings in the years gone by.

Fianna Fáil’s party think-ins were notorious raucous events during the Celtic Tiger years, but the shenanigans came to an abrupt end in 2010 when former Taoiseach Brian Cowen had to deny being hungover during an early-morning radio interview following the conference in Galway.

While pints were still had in subsequent years, a more somber tone had to be struck.

Following Fianna Fáil TD Barry Cowen writing to fellow party members calling for a special in-person meeting to address the Dublin Bay South by-election and 2020 general election results, the members will meet for their first in-person parliamentary party meeting in over a year.

The key parliamentary party meeting will get underway at 3pm today and run until 7pm before resuming at 8pm.

The party has decided to skip a big dinner for all present due to Covid-19, with attendees told to book their own table at the hotel and sort out their own food. 

While housing, mental health, Brexit and the Northern Ireland protocol are all on the agenda over the two days, the real thing to watch for will be whether there will be any flashpoints over Micheál Martin’s leadership.

Micheál Martin’s leadership

Questions over Martin’s ongoing leadership of the party were raised after the party’s poor Dublin Bay South by-election result in which the party secured just 4.6% of the vote. 

There has also been a focus on whether he will take on the role as Tánaiste when the office of Taoiseach switches to Fine Gael under the coalition deal and whether he will lead his party into the next general election. 

More recently, the Zapponegate affair and questions over the authority the Taoiseach has in holding Fine Gael ministers to account have been raised.

So delicate will the debate be on the party’s future, it has been suggested that party TDs, Senators and MEPs should put their mobile devices in a container at the side of the room when the parliamentary party meets today.

A list of 15 Fianna Fail TDs who would back a motion of no confidence in Martin has been doing the rounds since before the summer.

The list is still four names short of the necessary 19 to win a no confidence vote.

Yesterday, Education Minister and Kerry TD Norma Foley dismissed the list as mere speculation.

When asked what sort of impact such a list will have on discussions in Cavan over the two days, one party source said it would not take a “political Einstein” to draft such a list.

They predicted that today’s parliamentary party meeting will see a “fair bit of rough and tumble”, but ultimately Martin will come out of it unscathed.

They said if he deals with the criticisms from party members, and actions are put in place to reform and make the changes needed, then he should stumble on.

Election results

Part of the meeting will focus on analysing the party’s result in the last general election. A report – though over a year old – will be presented to members by the party’s chair TD Sean Fleming.

Fianna Fáil had expected to make gains at the 2020 general election – and did manage to return more TDs than either Sinn Féin or Fine Gael – but ended up losing seven seats, dropping from 45 before the election to 38. 

Party sources said the report is fairly outdated now, with members only seeing it today, many, many months since the February 2020 election.

The report, 44 pages long, cites the lack of strategic oversight, and responding too slow to issues during the election as some of he key problems during the election. 

It finds that the confidence and supply arrangement it had with Fine Gael when they held power  “pushed the party too close to government” and “hampered” the Fianna Fáil’s ability to provide opposition to government policies.

The referendum on the Eighth Amendment and the party’s stance is also cited, stating that “many members of the public felt the party was not in tune with modern social issues in Ireland”.

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It also mentions that younger voters have “no recollection” of some of the party’s successes in government in the decades gone by, and many are not loyal party voters.

As a result, the report states that young people now need to be central to defining the party’s identity. A survey shows the majority of Fianna Fáil members aged under 65 believe the party does not have a distinct identity and this fed into their election result.

Other recommendations contained in the report include that younger candidates must be prioritised in any upcoming elections and that as a “matter of urgency” an action plan to progress gender equality across all levels of the party must be developed.

As regards the party leadership, the report found that some interviews with party members voiced criticism that Martin “overly focused” on Sinn Féin during the election. 

Speaking on RTÉ Radio yesterday, TD Jim O’Callaghan – one of the leading contenders to be the next party leader – said: “I think a lot of people don’t know anymore what Fianna Fáil stands for.”

That is one question the party will be seeking to answer over the next couple of days.

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