Fianna Fáil under the leadership of Micheál Martin has not captured the public imagination with any distinctive policy programme, either right or left, writes Gary Murphy
WITH that one phrase and in one fell swoop Micheál Martin has brought ideology back into Irish politics.
Fine Gael is too right-wing for Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin is clearly too left-wing for them. We can only surmise that Fianna Fáil is in the centre but what exactly is that in the post-troika Ireland of 2014?
When Micheál Martin became the eighth leader of Fianna Fáil on January 26, 2011 he faced a gargantuan task. The eight days between Brian Cowen placing a motion of confidence in himself on January 18 to the time of Martin’s election had been among the most momentous in modern Irish history.
Fianna Fáil and the government they led both imploded. Despite being at the cabinet table for close to 14 years, Micheál Martin was thrust immediately into a general election as the somewhat shiny new face of Fianna Fáil facing an electorate who, to be frank, were sick of the party.
There can be no doubt that the scale of the 2011 general election defeat shocked Fianna Fáil to the core.
Notwithstanding the party’s dismal showing in the polls prior to the election, there continued to be a belief held among the soldiers of destiny that the quirks of the Irish electoral system would lessen the inevitable seat losses and that local factors and clientelism would save a decent number of TDs.
Martin predicted they would return at least one TD in every constituency.
While the eventual losses were staggering, the fact that Fianna Fáil could gain over 380,000 first preference votes and 17% of the vote on the back of presiding over the worst economic crisis in the history of the State, and that it could attract such support despite its negative reputation on issues of trust and competency, says something about its resilience.
For the last three-and-a-half years Martin has been beating the same drum, claiming that the party lost its way in the latter years of the Celtic Tiger by forgetting its radical roots and that it can recover both its zeal and purpose by returning to the original progressive policies of Éamon de Valera and Seán Lemass. He has, however, not told the electorate what these are in today’s Ireland.
It also does not help that Martin continues to insist that Fianna Fáil lost its way under Bertie Ahern by failing to challenge the consensus.
This seems to miss the pretty important point that Fianna Fáil created the self-same consensus through its commitment to a heady but fatal concoction of a low taxation base, high public spending, including a throw-money-at-whatever-the-problem-is approach, and an astonishingly lax regulatory framework for the banking system.
Martin’s jibe that Fine Gael are too right-wing was not just some throwaway remark but had its roots in Fianna Fáil’s long history.
Fianna Fáil always viewed themselves as the real Labour party; the party of social and economic progress, the party of free secondary education, the party which copperfastened economic sovereignty by engaging with Europe when they realised self-sufficiency had had its day.
They were the party of the people who had their dinner in the middle of the day, not the party of the developers and the bankers, the party who offered people hope, who made it possible for their lives to be better, and for their children to have more opportunities than they had. The party which offered the people a safety net through social welfare when they needed it. That’s what Fianna Fáil in essence stood for.
All this changed in recent years as Martin sat at the cabinet table.
Under Ahern and his finance ministers Charlie McCreevy and Brian Cowen, Fianna Fáil discarded its careful reputation as a party that could be trusted to keep a close eye on the economic tiller to one which effectively adopted an ‘if I have it I spend it’ philosophy.
Married to this was a political hubris which was dismissive of any warning voices.
Truly Icarus in the guise of Fianna Fáil had flown too close to the sun. The result was a scarring burn not just across the party but across all of Irish society with the loss of economic sovereignty.
When the economic Armageddon came Fianna Fáil was directly in the firing line and took the consequences at the 2011 general election.
Having worked painstakingly to rebuild the party after its implosion in 2011 the local election results last May seemed to show an electorate in slightly forgiving mode when it comes to Martin and Fianna Fáil.
Gaining the largest number of votes at the local elections masked the fact that this was the second worst election result in Fianna Fáil’s history. The party also performed poorly in the European elections and in the by elections held on the same day and has not capitalised to any great extent on dissatisfaction with the government.
Many might feel that there is a touch of self-delusion and hubris about Martin claiming he wants to be Taoiseach after the next general election with his party stuck at 18% in the polls, just a point higher than its 2011 general election result.
Nevertheless, there would not be much point in him being in politics if he did not want to be Taoiseach.
The reality, however, is Fianna Fáil has not captured the public imagination with any distinctive policy programme, either right or left.
Moreover, it faces its old ghosts coming back to haunt it as the recent spectre of Mary Hanafin’s local election victory and biting comments about its frontbench shows.
Martin would be denying the history of his party if he said he would be willing to enter government with Fine Gael on the right or Sinn Féin on the left.
The danger he faces, however, is that the electorate might feel that neither right nor left Fianna Fáil offers no future to them.
Gary Murphy is professor of politics and head of the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University
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