Special Report: Fianna Fáil - Soldiers of Destiny or fighting for survival?

Special Report: Fianna Fáil - Soldiers of Destiny or fighting for survival?

Micheál Martin meets locals as he returns home to Ballinlough, Cork, having been made Taoiseach.

It is an anecdote so well-worn that it has made its way into the popular lexicon, and become a jokey shorthand for all sorts of political incidents.

According to party leader Eamon Ryan, when the Greens arrived for government formation talks with Fianna Fáil in 2007, they were told by the late Seamus Brennan: “You are playing senior hurling now lads — but you are playing with lads with All Ireland medals.”

The message was clear — Fianna Fáil was the party that could negotiate, manouevre, and deliver at the top level of Irish politics.

Flash forward 13 years and Fianna Fáil holds the keys to the Taoiseach’s office and controls the ministries of housing, health, and public expenditure.

And yet there’s a sense that the party is either constantly in turmoil or fighting to contain a problem of its own making — something a party member describes as “leaky shoes” because of the number of shots fired at the party’s own feet.

But for some, this is just Fianna Fáil — a party whose members always seems to be at odds with one another but always hold it together and perform come election time. 

This is a party that, after requiring a €64bn bailout, went to the Irish public and received 387,000 first preference votes.

But just two months after forming a historic coalition with Fine Gael and the Greens, some in the party believe Fianna Fáil is destined never lead a government again. 

Others believe the road back for the party will require a long, introspective look at how business is done. 

A smaller cohort believe Fianna Fáil will be just fine as it is, betting the farm on delivering massively in key areas of government over the coming years.

Party is more a product of the last decade than century

The ancient history of Fianna Fáil is well worn. Founded in 1926 by Éamon de Valera and proceeding to lead the country for the majority of the time in between, the party formed coalitions with the left and the right, and transformed its image as the country changed around it.

But that is not really the history of this Fianna Fáil, the Fianna Fáil of the new millenium. 

Sure, there is still great reverence to the likes of Dev and Lemass, but the Fianna Fáil which today forms one of the three pillars of Irish government is more a product of the last decade than the last century.

As Irish politics has shifted, the party has been accused internally of shifting too much but also not enough — of chasing liberal kudos on social issues and of being too conservative.

But some in the party say that is exactly the point of Fianna Fáil — that it is the broadest of broad churches all with one unifying theme around it — work together despite your differences and change things from within
government.

“I don’t care about social issues, politically speaking,” one senior party member says. 

“I have my own opinion, obviously, but I care about economics, mostly.”

To trace the line between Fianna Fáil then and Fianna Fáil now, you need to go back to the beginning of 2011.

Within four days of Brian Cowen's resignation, party TDs voted to install Micheál Martin as the party leader. Picture: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland.
Within four days of Brian Cowen's resignation, party TDs voted to install Micheál Martin as the party leader. Picture: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland.

Ireland was just months removed from an EU/IMF bailout and Taoiseach Brian Cowen was staring down his own party. 

Determined not to resign as Taoiseach, Mr Cowen put down a motion of confidence in his own leadership at a parliamentary party meeting. 

That move saw a challenger concretely emerge — Foreign Affairs Minister
Micheál Martin.

While Martin was seen as the heir apparent and was popular in the party at the time, Mr Cowen survived, winning the vote.

“Fianna Fáil doesn’t vote against its leaders,” one source said.

One former TD said that Mr Cowen survived the vote for a number of reasons.

“There was a bit of a sense that you’d be handing Micheál a hospital pass, in a way. 

Plus, there was still a huge respect for who Brian was and what he had done for the party and the country. If he wanted to go on his own terms, let him.

Though Mr Cowen survived, he was a lame duck and a botched attempt at a Cabinet reshuffle led to his resignation and a hastily-called leadership election. 

Within four days, the party’s TDs had voted to install Mr Martin as the party leader in a four-way race with Mary Hanafin, Brian Lenihan, and Éamon Ó Cuív.

“It wasn’t like there was a massive enthusiasm for any candidate, but Micheál was clearly the best choice at the time,” the former TD says.

So, with just 30 days to go to the general election, Mr Martin took on the role of Fianna Fáil party leader, steering what was already accepted as a doomed ship to an electoral disaster. 

From 72 TDs, the party fell to just 20. But there were signs that the party could be optimistic about its future.

Firstly, they would lead the opposition to a huge coalition government which would have to enact austerity measures.

Secondly, there had been seats picked up by young TDs Charlie McConalogue and Robert Troy, showing that while the public had fallen out with the party, there was no reason to believe they would not be forgiven.

Taking 15% of the vote on their very worst day certainly made many confident that there was, at least, a road back for the party.

“Fifteen per cent is not a wipeout. It’s a severe setback, a rebuff,” said former TD Martin Mansergh.

Failure to predict Sinn Féin surge may have cost FF dearly in 2020 election

Micheál Martin, Leo Varadkar, and Mary Lou McDonald at RTÉ in January for the final live television leaders’ debate of the 2020 general election campaign. Photograph: Leah Farrell / RollingNews
Micheál Martin, Leo Varadkar, and Mary Lou McDonald at RTÉ in January for the final live television leaders’ debate of the 2020 general election campaign. Photograph: Leah Farrell / RollingNews

On the day the election was called in January, Fianna Fáil was flying high, holding a 12 percentage point lead over Fine Gael in a Sunday Times/Behaviour and Attitudes poll carried out over the same few days.

Released that Sunday, it boosted morale and hammered home to some in the party that it was ready to fight and win the election.

Some internal tallies suggested the party could win as many as 58 to 60 seats if all went right — not an overall majority, but close enough that a deal could be made that avoided bedding down with either Fine Gael or Sinn Féin, both of which the party’s leader ruled out.

Micheál Martin, however, downplayed the notion that his party was in the lead as the campaign kicked off.

“I don’t accept anything of the sort. I’m a very humble man, as you know, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s very competitive,” he told journalists at Leinster House.

“I think it’s neck and neck. If I’m honest, and I think there’s a lot of competitive electoral battles in the different constituencies and that will be an important influence on the outcome of the election.”

Neck and neck implied what many in the party now suspect — that few saw the size of the Sinn Féin surge. 

By painting the race as a two-way choice, many in Fianna Fáil now believe that the door was opened to Mary Lou McDonald.

A senior party source says that the campaign struggled to get out of first gear, but not by accident. 

They say that there was a feeling that Mr Martin was happy with the early polling and didn’t want to define his government by making what he saw as unrealistic promises.

TDs said that they were harmed by the “presidential” style of the campaign,
a dig at Mr Martin.

There was also the issue of Sinn Féin. Despite polling well, some in Fianna Fáil were convinced that their message and plans were
superior and Sinn Féin’s handling of the Paul Quinn affair would see younger voters either not vote or not vote for Sinn Féin.

“Our campaign was anaemic and a lot of that comes back to Micheál’s kitchen cabinet. 

"They were terrified of making the kinds of promises that Sinn Féin were making because I think they didn’t want to be held to them.

“I think it’s broadly accepted that the blame for the 2020 campaign is on Micheál and the likes of [Mr Martin’s advisers] Deirdre Gillane and Pat McFarland. 

"They felt as if we were going to be back in power anyway, so why make promises?

They didn’t believe that people would look at Sinn Féin and vote for them. Some of our TDs tried to argue that people don’t know their history. 

"But young people are living with their parents in their 30s, so it felt like at least Sinn Féin were offering something.”

“RTÉ didn’t help us,” says one TD, referencing the leaders’ debate that saw Ms McDonald left out, then added to the slate. 

“It fed into this idea that Sinn Féin were outsiders. 

"In the end, I don’t think Mary Lou was that good in the debate, but the story was written in the last few days and I don’t think we ever did enough to counteract that idea that Sinn Féin was the only party offering real change.”

For all the talk about “winning” the election, Fianna Fáil members are always keen to point out one key thing — it is they who won the most seats in February.

However, 38 seats was a far cry from even the most pessimistic of spreadsheets that were doing the rounds of Whatsapp groups late into the first week of February, especially when 16 sitting TDs lost their seats, including big names like Timmy Dooley, Pat ‘The Cope’ Gallagher, and Lisa Chambers, who is seen as a future star in the party.

“It was difficult at times on the day, every seat we won would have a loss, so it was a bit of a rollercoaster,” says one TD.

“And then you look and Sinn Féin are getting people elected who are on their holidays. 

"If that doesn’t say something about the strength of their brand, I don’t know what does.”

Rising star Lisa Chambers was one of the high-profile casualties of February’s election. Picture: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie
Rising star Lisa Chambers was one of the high-profile casualties of February’s election. Picture: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

For some, the issue was crystalised in two constituencies — Wexford and Clare. 

In Wexford, Fianna Fáil had just 71 days earlier won a by-election which saw Malcolm Byrne safely defeat then-Fine Gael candidate
Verona Murphy. 

Sinn Féin’s Johnny Mythen would run a distant fourth, collecting 4,100 first preference votes.

In February, Mr Mythen more than quadrupled his vote, taking 18,717 votes and taking his seat on the first count. 

Mr Byrne would finish sixth in the five-seater, where Fianna Fáil had run four candidates. 

In Clare, Violet-Anne Wynne had a year previously placed eighth out of nine candidates in the local elections in Kilrush, getting 385 votes. 

In February, she received close to 9,000 and was able to take a seat ahead of then Fianna Fáil communications spokesman Timmy Dooley, as another Fianna Fáiler, first time TD Cathal Crowe, took a seat.

“It felt like even our wins that day were coming at our own expense,” a party source says.

Whereas Sinn Féin were winning everywhere. Anyone could have gotten elected for them that day.

But as the dust settled and the results rolled in it became clear that a government could only be formed if two of the now three bigger parties put their swords down and negotiated. 

Progress on that end was slow, as February became March and talks were hinted at but never really undertaken, and warnings made that it could be Easter before a government was formed.

And then Covid-19 happened. With talks taking something of a backseat to the pandemic, an unease set in. 

Going back to the public was something no TD really wanted, despite their public proclamations. 

But doing so in a pandemic, particularly one which Fine Gael was being lauded for handling in its early stages, was something many Fianna Fáil TDs wanted no part of.

As many as 17 Fianna Fáil TDs were open to negotiating with Sinn Féin, but Mr Martin wasn’t for budging. 

He would eventually come to the table and talk to Fine Gael, first on a fluffy framework document, then in three way talks with the Green Party.

That framework document was not well received, with one elected representative telling the Irish Examiner: “This is the
fucking end of Fianna Fáil.”

As many as 17 Fianna Fáil TDs were open to negotiating with Sinn Féin, but Micheál Martin wasn’t for budging. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins
As many as 17 Fianna Fáil TDs were open to negotiating with Sinn Féin, but Micheál Martin wasn’t for budging. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Another source at the time said: “With this deal we have essentially put Sinn Féin into opposition for the next five years and made them the credible alternative.

“We’ve played right into their hands, because when the cuts come after Covid-19, and they are coming, Sinn Féin can stand up and argue against them.

“The pandemic might help Micheál in becoming Taoiseach, but it could end the party, and everyone knows but we only have
bad options.”

Entering the talks, the disquiet in the party was somewhat quelled. 

There was a sense from the day to day commentary that many of the Fianna Fáil priorities — in housing and health particularly, but also on the economy — were being taken care of by a negotiating team which most in the party saw as extremely able.

But talks dragged on and on and at times it felt like that the Greens might walk away just as an opinion poll found that 48% of people wanted Mr Varadkar to remain Taoiseach, with just 18% hoping for Mr Martin.

The deal would be agreed finally in the last week in June and a Dáil sitting hastily convened at the Convention Centre Dublin.

But controversy wouldn’t be far away from Fianna Fáil in government. 

The elevations of Stephen Donnelly, who only joined Fianna Fáil in 2017, angered some longtime party members. ‘You have people who’ve slogged for years and he makes a relative blow-in Minister for Health,’ said one party source. Picture: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie
The elevations of Stephen Donnelly, who only joined Fianna Fáil in 2017, angered some longtime party members. ‘You have people who’ve slogged for years and he makes a relative blow-in Minister for Health,’ said one party source. Picture: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

As journalists raced between the Convention Centre and Leinster House, it became clear that Mr Martin’s picks for Cabinet would spring some surprises. 

First up, Stephen Donnelly would be picked to take on the Health brief, something that angered longtime party members.

“You have people who’ve slogged for years and he makes a relative blow-in Minister for Health,” said one party source.

But more anger would come as hacks and party members realised that the numbers would now mean that a stalwart would be overlooked for a full ministry. 

It would be Dara Calleary, the deputy leader, a loyal servant of the party for nearly a decade.

The reaction to that saw Mr Martin told he wasn’t welcome in Ballina as the Mayo branch of the party rowed in behind their man.

The rancour was deep, with those overlooked letting their displeasure be known.

Worse still would come when Mr Martin announced his junior ministerial picks. 

This time he was accused of disrespecting huge swathes of the country and, indeed, part of his own county. 

Cork North-West TD Michael Moynihan accused Taoiseach Micheál Martin of "disrespecting both him and his community" after he was overlooked for a junior ministry. Picture: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie
Cork North-West TD Michael Moynihan accused Taoiseach Micheál Martin of "disrespecting both him and his community" after he was overlooked for a junior ministry. Picture: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

Longtime ally Michael Moynihan accused Mr Martin of insulting both him and Cork North-West.

“There was no justification given to me, but he has insulted both me and my community. 

"I spent many years rebuilding the party — there’s not a county that I wasn’t in when we were rebuilding. I took a lot of shit up and down the country and kept it from [Mr Martin]”

Others were “disappointed” and “surprised”, something Mr Martin said he understood, but told this newspaper was unavoidable.

“I certainly understand the disappointment and anger of people who don’t get positions in government but we simply do not and did not have enough positions to satisfy everybody and that’s not the first time that has happened and it won’t be the last time, either.”

TDs and others away from those appointments say that they are “part and parcel of political life”.

“I think that Micheál handled that fine, to be honest,” says one source. “I think the media made far more of it.”

Cork East TD James O’Connor agrees, saying that some of the commentary was “disappointing”.

It was always going to be an exceptionally difficult task for the Taoiseach with the limited numbers. 

"I don’t think the commentary served the party well.”

Within days, however, a new controversy would arrive in the shape of Barry Cowen’s drink-driving conviction. 

Across the party, views on the handling of the issue are mixed, with some saying that Mr Martin “had no choice” but to sack his
Agriculture Minister and others criticising the
internal communication on the night of the sacking.

At the time, one backbench TD said that they were “fucking fuming” about having defended Mr Cowen in the hours between Mr Martin’s initial Dáil statement and Mr Cowen’s sacking.

But for Fianna Fáil true believers, all of those issues were internal politics, something that the party knows how to handle. 

A more pressing issue is that the party of “senior hurling” is being outplayed by its team mate.

“There’s a sense that Leo is laughing his arse off,” one source says about the
Tánaiste.

“He’s out ahead of the NPHET meetings, confirming government policy, knowing nothing can be done. 

What are we going to do? Pull the Government down over a statement while polling at 12%?

Mr Martin last week told this newspaper that the narrative that Fine Gael is in charge doesn’t bother him in the slightest.

“I think that’s all just chit-chat. I let the commentariat go on about it and frankly, some of that has been over-read and over-interpreting what happens,” he said, adding that the issue is “overstated” in commentary.

But it worries party members because of the
nature of the Government. 

There is also the sense that some don’t like being politically out-manoeuvred.

“There’s every chance that Leo comes back into the Taoiseach’s office when the economy is stabilised and takes all the credit.”

Fianna Fáil may have won the most seats in February’s vote out of any party, but the
victory was tempered by heavy losses

‘Heaves against leaders is more of a Fine Gael thing’

Picture: AP Photo/Francisco Seco, Pool
Picture: AP Photo/Francisco Seco, Pool

“The only policy the party has had for over a year is to make Micheál Martin the Taoiseach.”

If Mr Martin is a superstitious man, he will have looked dimly at the weather on June 27 as Dublin’s heavens opened up and poured rain on top of those arriving at the base of Kevin Roche’s glass cylinder along the banks of the Liffey.

Instead, he cut a relaxed figure. A man who had avoided the ignominy of being the first Fianna Fáil leader not to lead the country. 

Mr Martin often says that things like that don’t affect his thinking and you would well believe him as he claims that he puts policy over personal politics.

Within the party, he is liked by many and respected by nearly all, but like all party leaders is accused of playing favourites by those who see themselves outside the tent.

He says that he wants to continue as party leader when his term as Taoiseach ends, but with both Barry Cowen and Jim O’Callaghan, who turned down Mr Martin’s offer of a junior ministry, positioning themselves for the role, how long more can he hang on?

“We don’t heave against leaders, really,” one source said. 

“That’s more a Fine Gael thing. We would always be off the opinion that it’s his decision when to leave.

Right now if you called a vote on his leadership, you might end up with 18 TDs willing to vote against him for someone like Barry or Jim or [Housing Minister] Darragh O’Brien. 

"But what is far more likely is that one of his allies will be tapped on the shoulder and told the majority are ready for him to go and to relay that message.”

Having waited so long to become Taoiseach, Mr Martin has bet the farm on big items. 

He wants Fianna Fáil to overhaul Ireland’s housing delivery and to do so fast. 

He wants to see real progress in delivering change to the health system and he wants to protect rural Ireland from the impacts of Covid-19 and Brexit.

He is banking on these issues being delivered upon because he knows it is Fianna Fáil’s route back to government after the next election. 

But it is a weighty gamble given the current climate, despite Mr Martin’s confidence in himself and his team.

Tough choices to make

anaiste Leo Varadkar and An Taoiseach Micheal Martin at a press briefing in Dublin Castle.
anaiste Leo Varadkar and An Taoiseach Micheal Martin at a press briefing in Dublin Castle.

Having proved a decent opposition, if not one that dominated the agenda as often as it might have liked, Fianna Fáil went into the 2016 general election polling a percentage around the low 20s, but would return 24% of the vote and add 23 seats to the 21 it ended the Dáil term with.

That, however, wouldn’t be enough to see the party back into Government Buildings and the options from either side were not great.

“We could have tried to form a
minority government with Sinn Féin, but how long would that have lasted?” asks one party source. 

“In the end, we were left with that.”

That, of course being the confidence and supply agreement, which the party entered into, propping up a minority government of Fine Gael and independents.

“That was the beginning of the end,” says a party source. “We accepted the argument that it was Fine Gael or Sinn Féin as a political choice. 

"I mean, what were we? A real opposition or a mudguard? It was hard to tell at times. 

You had TDs who were really chomping at the bit to take the Government down and you had Micheál talking about how the deal wasn’t being implemented, but in the end, Leo was calling the shots.

Some within Fianna Fáil were keen to be seen as more than just another party and felt that walking away from the agreement on one issue or another, be it a one-off controversy or a long-term issue like health or housing, would play well with people.

Others, however, cautioned that taking the ball and going home would reflect poorly on the party.

One TD says that the unusual arrangement hampered the party in the eyes of the public, who met many Fianna Fáil grievances with a shrugging of shoulders and the not unfair question of ‘If you’re so angry, why not pull your support?’.

“The real upshot of it was this — we ended up being an opposition that was trying to hold a government to account while at the same time allowing it to continue, which put us in no man’s land, really.”

In the end, then-taoiseach Leo Varadkar was able to take his time over calling an election, but Fianna Fáil felt more than ready.

Slow rebirth or slow death?

Paul Hosford of the ‘Irish Examiner’ interviews Micheál Martin. Picture: Moya Nolan
Paul Hosford of the ‘Irish Examiner’ interviews Micheál Martin. Picture: Moya Nolan

With Micheál Martin Taoiseach, the challenge is for Fianna Fáil to rebuild internally, something both Barry Cowen and Jim O’Callaghan have hinted at working towards, to ensure he is not the last Fianna Fáil Taoiseach.

James O’Connor says that despite a shaky start in government, he is confident that the work can be done, praising the party for taking on difficult portfolios.

“From my perspective, there is a serious desire to see that the government is being run by competent politicians. 

"We have exceptionally able ministers and I’m sure that they’ll get a chance to show what they can do in the next few months. 

It was a shaky start, but I have massive confidence in the party.

Others are more downbeat in their appraisal of the party’s future.

“It’s hard to say, but it will take a lot of work from whoever the next leader is,” says one TD.

Another senior party source says that the party is in a tailspin from which it cannot recover.

“I think we’ve handed over the idea that the choices are us and Fine Gael, so we’ve set ourselves up to be that mudguard going forward. 

"I think it will be a slow death.”

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