Juno McEnroe: Having prepared for power, Fianna Fáil now has to mull its options

Juno McEnroe: Having prepared for power, Fianna Fáil now has to mull its options
Lord Mayor of Dublin Paul McAuliffe provided one of Fianna Fáil’s good news stories, securing the last seat in Dublin North-West — but the party will be asking themselves if the confidence and supply deal with Fine Gael damaged them at the ballot box. Picture: Leah Farrell.

Fianna Fáil need to work out what went so wrong for them, writes Political Correspondent Juno McEnroe.

The arrival into the RDS of Dublin City Lord Mayor, Fianna Fáil’s Paul McAuliffe, the party’s Dublin North-West candidate, brought a sigh of relief for party strategists and stalwarts.

For hours on the second day of counting in the general election, expected electoral gains and new seats for Fianna Fáil had suddenly started to turn into bitter disappointments, a political virus, as sitting TDs were dropping everywhere across the country.

This was supposed to be the moment: after nine years in opposition, a charged and optimistic campaign — driven by positive polls — had pointed to the Soldiers of Destiny adding to their Dáil ranks.

But it was not to be. Instead, by dinnertime on Monday, 14 sitting Fianna Fáil TDs looked set to lose their seats. And faces were dropping at the RDS count centre in Dublin.

That was why McAuliffe’s arrival into the Dublin 4 venue brought relief for the party.

The Fianna Fáil lord mayor finally looked on track to win the last seat in Dublin North-West after a protracted battle in the three-seater. There had been jibes from others that McAuliffe was going to lose.

But that didn’t come to pass, and the party instead managed to retain seven seats in the capital, one more than in 2016.

But darker clouds were settling over other parts of the country, as the party woke up to the brutal reality of the losses inflicted on it by the electorate over the weekend.

Senior party figures said its support for Fine Gael over the last four years under the confidence and supply agreement, had hurt Fianna Fáil badly at the ballot box — and Sinn Féin had got that message out.

Like dominos, sitting TDs began falling in the day, and this continued into the evening, as counting in the 39 constituencies moved towards the finish line.

The night before, former party communications spokesman Timmy Dooley lost in Clare, as did Brexit spokeswoman, Lisa Chambers, in Mayo.

The latter was a huge loss for party leader Micheál Martin, who had stood by Chambers during the recent votegate controversy and shared the political stage with her so many times during Brexit media events.

Chambers was more than magnanimous about her defeat:

It is really disappointing. It is one of those things in politics: sometimes you succeed and sometimes you don’t. We are on course to be the largest party, but it is a very fractured Dáil.

Then there was the loss of John Brassil in Kerry, Margaret Murphy O’Mahony in Cork South-West, while the winds of political change also took out Bobby Aylward in Carlow-Kilkenny, Kevin O’Keeffe in Cork East, Fiona O’Loughlin in Kildare South, and Shane Cassells in Meath West. The loss of Cassells was a big shock for the party. In a Facebook message after his defeat, he said: “Wasn’t to be today... Beidh lá eile.”

Party HQ was putting on a brave face, and pointed to the newer TDs including in Kerry, Carlow-Kilkenny, and Cork East. But there were recriminations as the election casualty list grew.

Back in the RDS, Fianna Fáil’s long-time general secretary Sean Dorgan, looked on quietly as jubilant crowds gathered around Paul McAuliffe, in anticipation of his election. Dorgan knew there were different scenes playing out for party members in other count centres.

Slowly, he stepped forward, and the outgoing Dublin mayor gave him a long and strong embrace. Both knew the significance of the 11th-hour win.

One loss, in particular, struck a chord for Fianna Fáil. John Curran had succumbed to the Sinn Féin surge in Dublin Mid-West. Many view this loss as a sign that Sinn Féin has eaten into Fianna Fáil’s traditional working-class vote, particularly in Dublin.

Defeated Fianna Fáil TD Lisa Chambers with Cllr Annie Mae Reape at the count centre in Castlebar on Sunday. Picture: Michael Donnelly.
Defeated Fianna Fáil TD Lisa Chambers with Cllr Annie Mae Reape at the count centre in Castlebar on Sunday. Picture: Michael Donnelly.

It was also a tough day for Malcolm Byrne, who lost in Wexford. He was only in the Dáil for its full eight sitting days since his by-election win last November.

The party “must accept that we will form a centrist opposition,” tweeted Byrne afterwards.

Amid the fallout, there are now questions about why Fianna Fáil took risks running two candidates in places; whether there was any backlash over its decision to back repeal in the 2018 abortion referendum, and how the election campaign resulted in seven fewer seats than its 2016 Dáil tally.

There will be much deliberation over Fianna Fáil’s losses and whether this was just a shock election that saw a Sinn Féin surge disrupt voting expectations across the political spectrum.

But there is also a dawning realisation that its confidence and supply agreement with the last government seriously damaged the party.

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