Could online primaries hold the key to Fianna Fail renewal?

The box: FF either thinks outside it, or hides in it.

The box: FF either thinks outside it, or hides in it.

Watching the Fianna Fail “Think-in in Tallaght” I was struck by the relative shallowness of it all. In fairness, I don’t blame Fianna Fail. Having gone from being one of the most successful parties in the democratic world to this, it’s hard for them to switch off the paralysing ultra-cautiousness that symbolised their last years in government. On top of that, bear in mind that it has been literally decades since Fianna Fail had an original idea. You probably have to go back to the Programme for National Recovery and social partnership in 1987 to find one. Nearly every big idea of the last twenty years came from other parties, from engaging with the British or Sinn Fein over the North (Fine Gael/SDLP) to becoming more socially liberal (Labour) to supporting lower taxes (The PDs). Fianna Fail was like a giant jug of water flavoured by other parties political Mi-Wadi.

Now it has no choice, although looking at them you wouldn’t think so. Niall Collins TD seems to be emerging as the leader of the Dorothy wing of the party, in favour of clicking his heels and taking the party back to where it was and making all the nastiness of the last five years just go away. The plan for that side of the party seems to be to deny that 2007-2011 ever happened and hope for the best.

Is that enough? I suspect that there is a section of the country who will be happy with that, but to go beyond that crowd of twitching squirrel chasers the party needs to get radical, and start asking itself hard questions. One question is about the structure of FF, and whether the Cumann structure alone is the best way of recruiting sympathetic people to the party? Having spent many a wet Tuesday evening sitting in the backroom of a pub at a branch meeting, I’m not convinced.

Why would people join Fianna Fail? What’s in it for them? A drafty back room, or a say in the party? Supposing, for example, FF had announced that it was going to hold a public online primary for the FF nomination for president, on the basis that participants paid, say, €4 for the privilege. Fianna Fail is estimated to have at least 1500 active cumainn. Assuming that each cumann has at least 5 members, that means an internal electorate of 7500, which would be a respectable number for an internal political ballot, and that’s before FF supporters in the public register. Could you have opposition people registering to sabotage the vote? Possibly, but they’ll have to pay big money for the option and the party can always set aside the result if it is obvious that tampering has gone on. Worse case scenario, FF raises 40 or 50 grand for a campaign and has an up to date list of registered party members or supporters, whilst getting free publicity during the process and leading the way in internal party democracy. And it doesn’t stop there. Eventually, the same process could be used to choose the next party leader, or its candidates for the European Parliament, or to draft the party’s manifesto, and all the time raising money for the party as it goes.

Of course, already I can smell the sweat of fear from some in the party. What if we lose control of the process? What if the voters choose the wrong leader, they ask? What, like Bertie? Or Cowen? 

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