As Fianna Fail stumbles from the wreckage of its once formidable jumbo onto the desert island of potential political armageddon, it needs to recognise that everything has to be on the table in terms of political reconstruction. There will be a temptation to just point to the past and a lanky blind New Yorker and hope for the political winds to turn, but that would be foolish. Fianna Fail needs to be willing to confront a few ghosts. In fact, the mere act of confronting them will do the party good.
Des O’Malley was expelled from Fianna Fail in 1984 for “conduct unbecoming a member of Fianna Fail”. Funnily enough, given who it was who led the charge against him (Haughey and Co.), that turned out to be a very accurate charge to lay against O’Malley. By not being a thieving crook and a moralising hypocrite, O’Malley was indeed engaged in conduct unbecoming those certain members of Fianna Fail. But he was expelled for basically saying that issues of morality should be decided by personal conscience, not by the state. He was right, they were wrong, and the proof of that is that Fianna Fail is now relatively socially liberal and has endorsed all the liberal social positions on divorce and contraception that O’Malley was expelled for.
When Bobby Molloy joined the Progressive Democrats, a clause was inserted into the party constitution to ensure that Molloy, who was socially conservative, would not be forced to vote against his conscience. It became known as the conscience clause and it was one of the reasons I joined the party as a callow sixteen year old. That was the key to the PDs in my mind, that the party was liberal in that it permitted dissent on conscience issues, which was a big step at the time.
As Fianna Fail looks to reestablish itself, surely an option open to Micheal Martin is to adopt the O’Malley doctrine for Fianna Fail, to say that from here on in, Fianna Fail will operate such a conscience clause on issues of morality, and will no longer play divisive social issues like abortion or same-sex marriage, but will permit members to hold their own views. It would be an interesting way of signalling a difference with Fine Gael’s new social conservative wing (Eoghan Murphy excepted) and begin to define a new form of open, tolerant Republicanism for the 21st century.
And while he’s at it, wouldn’t it be classy for him to issue an apology to Des O’Malley, and invite him to rejoin Fianna Fail? Who will he piss off? Padraig Flynn? Ray Burke? Bertie Ahern? And that will damage him how, exactly?