Micheál Martin is adamant that his party’s poll resurgence will continue, writes Deputy Political Editor Mary Regan.
AT Fianna Fáil’s first ard fheis following its electoral defeat in 2011, a leading British politics academic, Professor Tim Bale, delivered the sobering advice to delegates: “You have to realise that your brand is not simply tarnished, it is utterly trashed. It is not just trashed, it is toxic.”
Almost three years on and the party leader, Micheál Martin, who took on what many believed was one of the most difficult jobs in politics — to rebuild the once dominant but dramatically fallen and unpopular party — now believes the “toxic” phase is behind it.
“We are moving on,” he says. “There is a vibrancy and new activism in the party and that augers well for the future.”
The row at a recent selection convention in Limerick — where some members formed a human chain to prevent counting of ballots — came as music to the ears of some senior members; a sign that far from being toxic, Fianna Fáil is as attractive a political home as ever.
The scene in the Adare-Rathkeale Cumann is reflective of rivalries around the country, where the old guard is resisting the queues of ambitious young people seeking to carve out a political career in Fianna Fáil.
The party is always eager to point out it has attracted 20,000 paid-up members. In a sign that Fianna Fáil is shaking off its negative brand, it has recently signed up the former Labour TD Colm Keaveney, following a similar move by Meath councillor Jenny McHugh last June.
Following a resurgence in the polls during last year — at one point to become the most popular party in the country again — Fianna Fáil has dropped back to a steady 21%-22% support. The Government parties, despite imposing a range of difficult cuts in October’s austerity budget, are clawing back some of their lost popularity.
So is this a sign that Enda Kenny is right when he continuously reminds the Dáil that he is successfully cleaning up the “unholy mess” that Fianna Fáil left behind? “Certainly not,” insists Mr Martin in an interview with the Irish Examiner. “If anything, he digressed from what he said he would do in opposition.
“Prior to coming into Government they promised all sorts of things: Burning bondholders, that they would change the four-year plan. But in essence, they implemented — at a macro level in terms of the overall budget figures — the plan that we put in place and which we had given a significant head-start to in the form of the €6bn budget that immediately preceded the 2011 general election.”
Two-thirds of the overall fiscal consolidation since 2008 had been completed when this Government came into power, he points out. But the difference, Mr Martin says, is that Fianna Fáil was fairer in choosing where the cuts should fall.
“It’s not just us saying that; the ESRI have said that the last two budgets were regressive, which basically means unfair and impacted most severely on those with less income. And that’s the one area of significant divergence between us and the governing parties,” Mr Martin says.
Why then did the latest series of opinion polls before Christmas, show a rise in support for Fine Gael, up to 30%? “Certainly, the Government are at the right end of the cycle from an economic perspective — if it continues,” he says. “But there are still serious issues, particularly with health and in education, that we will continue to highlight.”
One issue where Fianna Fáil has managed to rattle the Government parties is its consistent highlighting of the removal of discretionary medical cards from seriously ill patients, and children with Down’s syndrome around the country.
Fianna Fáil’s drawing attention to the issue shows its important role in holding the Government to account, Mr Martin believes, and had an impact on the final HSE service plan for 2014 in which an earlier decision to cut €113m through “medical card probity” was reversed.
Mr Martin also believes the result of the referendum on Seanad abolition last October, in which his party was the only one to campaign for its retention, shows that “people were listening again to Fianna Fáil in terms of putting solid arguments forward”.
Is there a concern its past association with the economic crash will constantly reduce Fianna Fáil’s credibility? Mr Martin was, after all, branded a “disgrace” by Fine Gael TDs when he sought an explanation of the Government’s decision in November to exit the bailout without a financial backstop.
“I think that’s a reflection on the Government backbenchers,” he says. “That form of intervention was appalling, it reflects very badly on them,” he says. “It’s as if they don’t even want normal democracy to prevail in the chamber.”
His problems, however, don’t end at the Government benches. Although there is “no one forming a queue” for the leadership, as one TD put it, concerns have been expressed from within the parliamentary party, on the level of progress it is making.
The results of one opinion poll before Christmas prompted Galway West TD and former deputy leader, Éamon Ó Cuív to tweet that the party is “becalmed”, adding that “we just don’t seem to be making consistent gains”.
Mr Martin rejects this analysis, and says if you compare it to where the parties were in 2011, when some people had all but written off his party, then it is in a good position.
“If you go back to 2011, we have increased by 7%,” he said. “In Dec 2011 we were, on average, at 16%, we are now at 23%. And Fine Gael were at 30%, they are now down to 28%. Labour are down 7% from where they were in 2011,” he says.
“For us, the gap is narrowing between the parties, and it’s not the budgets that will determine that, it’s wider issues as well. And yes, we constantly have a job to do to get the message across and to keep constantly pushing on these issues. As far as we are concerned, the renewal of Fianna Fáil is work in progress.”
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