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FF think in

Last week I wrote about the Renew Europe think-in of 100 MEPs in Paris. Later that week, I went straight to Cavan for a couple of days of intense discussions with the other 50 members of the Fianna Fail Parliamentary Party (37 TDs and 13 Senators).

The first thing to note is that, for the first time in my experience, members were required to leave their phones at the door, like Wild West gunslingers dumping their holsters at the front of the saloon.

The effect was immediate. Whatever was said in the room stayed in the room, at least until someone wandered out for a coffee break, rescuing their phones from the plastic bags. Once a gunslinger, always a gunslinger.

The media dutifully reported the negative comments - anything constructive not being considered newsworthy.

Not that anyone can ignore the parlous state of our Party. In Dublin, our support is in the range of 6-8% which is about half the level I would need to be re-elected in 2024. While it is easy and almost natural to blame others, we all have to take our fair share of the blame.

In my contribution to the discussion, I said that the state of the party reminded me of the feeling back in 2010 when the IMF bailout started. I recall being in a Cabinet meeting and looking out at snow falling that dark evening and thinking of my grandfather at the end of the Civil War as he hiked through the Knockmealdowns looking for Liam Lynch and the last holdouts of the Munster Republic.

I felt embarrassed and ashamed thinking of the journey he and many others had taken through the foundation of Fianna Fail in 1926, the establishment of semi-state bodies and on through the successful industrialisation of Ireland in the 1990s and the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

The sovereignty won by independence and through the creation of opportunities for prosperity and peace was seeping out under the cabinet door. And it had happened on our watch, on my watch.

I really wondered whether there was any coming back from that for Fianna Fail. Of course, the party had already hemorrhaged support and would never recover the support levels enjoyed in the mid 2000s. But Micheal Martin pursued a policy of renewal based on fiscal responsibility in Opposition. He deserves much of the credit for the General Election result in 2016 when Fianna Fail moved from 19 seats to 44.

Unfortunately, after a disastrous election in 2020, we are back to where we started and now the landscape has changed completely.

Speakers at the think-in reflected on why they had joined Fianna Fail - the diversity of backgrounds and personal stories was particularly impactful. TDs and Senators who had grown up in Council houses or in relative poverty on small rural farms spoke of a party of the underdog and a party that looked out for the most vulnerable.

But clearly that is not how we are perceived. I wondered if we would have been better off with journalists being present in the room as one emotional contribution after another demonstrated the passion for politics and the raw patriotism of many members of the party.

We will never get back to the support levels of the 1990s and the 2000s. In truth, such support levels were unknown in other EU countries. Most parties that lead coalitions across Europe have support levels in the mid-20s.

But without a clear identity and strong organisational direction, we are in deep trouble. In my view, without a significant recovery in Dublin, we are worse than unpopular - we are irrelevant.

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