I used to write computer code. Occasionally I still do, just to prove that I can. One of the true brain benders is inadvertently sending your code into an infinite loop - which requires at best a violent termination of the program, at worst a complete reboot. The code, of course, thinks nothing of the loop. It's doing what it's told to do, unaware that violent termination is the best outcome. This is what I thought of watching the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis at the weekend - they just can't help themselves. There's a machinery in Fianna Fáil that serves itself, it serves a higher order objective, some ethereal power that all delegates serve, the mystical Erin, the National Spirit, the Republican Ideal. It's been quite a long time since anyone really knew what that actually meant.
In the absence of someone who could actually understand that objective, or - better yet - someone who could update and modernise the idea of Fianna Fáil, the party has been on autopilot. There are processes that "everyone knows"; there are structures that have been there forever. And now, seemingly suddenly, they are falling apart. The rules - around managing conflict, resolving differing opinions, accommodating coalition - have not changed. The problem is that the enemy now lies within.
This happened substantially after Lynch. Until Lynch stepped down, I think Fianna Fáil retained a self-awareness that was rooted deeply in blood. The War of Independence, most recently relived in the Arms trial, was still alive in the people who fought that war. People who were only seventy or seventy five years of age had shot dead British Soldiers in the name of Ireland. And they guided Fianna Fáil, and mentored its leaders.
After Lynch, those veterans and mentors passed away, and Fianna Fáil lost its tether. The realist awareness of why Fianna Fáil existed in the first place disappeared, and in the absence of a modernisation of its raison d'etre, Fianna Fáil through Haughey began to see its existence and power as a right, and as an entitlement; that its fortunes and that of the state were inextricably linked; that as sure as the State existed, Fianna Fáil would be there to defend it. And perhaps in a twisted way they were right - that the demise of Fianna Fáil could only have been brought about by the destruction of the State.
In the absence of vision, and ideal, power itself became the dominant driver. You protect your seat first, all else follows. Bitterness within constituencies was not new for those denied the ticket, but defection - in Donegal, in Kerry, in Galway, and with the PDs - was unheard of. Bertie Ahern, the personification of the new post-Lynch Fianna Fáil modus operandi, was almost a perfection of the Charles Haughey Fianna Fáil animal. He didn't have Haughey's passion, dreams and delusions - Bertie was raw power, unencumbered by even familial baggage, unfettered even by conventional greed. Brian Cowen didn't have time to establish any pattern - he was scrambling even before he began, defending Ahern in the 2007 election, and losing Lisbon within weeks of assuming the leadership in 2008. Three years of pure Hell followed.
T presence of so many former ministers at the weekend's events, including Dick Roche, Mary Hanafin, Mary Coughlan, Noel Dempsey, Brian Cowen, Pat Carey, was a stark reminder of the not so distant past; they were all there. Zero John, who recently announced his intention to stand in the next election, was conspicuous by his absence (did anyone see him?). And then Bertie shows up, Micheal scuttles, Dara disappears, and everyone who has any semblance of a reputation left to protect scrambles for somewhere else to be. Bertie - shock and awe.
His lunchtime strut on Saturday was nothing short of a shot across the bows of Micheál Martin. "Look what happens," he was saying, "when I just show up and saw nothing. Imagine if I started talking?" Mahon will be out shortly. Whither collective responsibility? Where is solidarity, loyalty? Will Micheál just cut him loose, as the columnists are suggesting he must?
Bertie, the consummate party-pooper, smiled, glad handed, and displayed his coffee cup - Bean and Gone, it said. Not quite. Bertie will take the entire party down in order to preserve whatever he considers might remain of his legacy. And, looking over his shoulder perhaps at Iceland, maybe he has more to protect than his legacy. The former prime minister there has gone on trial and could face two years in prison. The new government here has preserved almost entirely apparatus of state that served up the appalling fate that befell us in 2008; and that same structure would abhor the incarceration of its erstwhile leader. So it is unlikely that our structures would threaten Ahern with prison. But some kind of trial is not inconceivable, but please God not another Tribunal!
Dev Óg is another who is circling the carcass of Fianna Fáil for his share. Mary Hanafin will look to re-enter the fray. Coughlin possibly too. Who knows - maybe even the class act herself, Beverly Flynn might reinsert herself into the process after an appropriate hiatus. Each will do what our modern Fianna Fáil creatures know how to do. They will fight for power; they will take no prisoners; and, devoid of vision and ideal, they will destroy themselves. Like that computer code that continues to execute in an infinite loop, they don't see, they can't see, that by doing what they've always done, their fate is sealed. Acquiring a vision would mean an abandonment of their native populism. Ireland - one hopes - is moving on.