Alison O’Connor: Will Fianna Fáil be as humble in power as they have been out of it?

Fine Gael are telling us what they will do in the future and Fianna Fáil want us to forget what they did in the past.

Alison O’Connor: Will Fianna Fáil be as humble in power as they have been out of it?

Fine Gael are telling us what they will do in thefuture and Fianna Fáil want us to forget what they did in the past.

Which way to look?

For now, we’ll concentrate on the latter’s efforts to shed the skin of the Fianna Fáil of old.

The party continues to walk a fine, well-practised line, in expressing remorse for the massive blow dealt to the country by the economic crash of 2008, while maintaining an element of plausible deniability.

A current example would be the Fianna Fáil director of elections, Dara Calleary, on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland on Wednesday.

He was questioned about his leader, Micheál Martin’s role in the Cabinet that oversaw our plunge into the economic abyss after the demise of the Celtic Tiger.

Straight away, the party deputy leader responded to the interviewer by saying that Martin “took very difficult decisions at that time” to try and reverse some of the excesses.

He then pivoted right into Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s record on health and housing.

So far, so predictable, and grist to the mill of election campaign debates.

It won’t just be interviewers who will be raising these type of questions, either; other parties will waste no opportunity to remind us of Fianna Fáil’s sins.

How much notice should we take of this?

The party has made an incredible recovery since 2011, when it won just 20 Dáil seats.

That was a very low base. Going into the 2016 general election, there were more constituencies without a Fianna Fáil TD than with one.

This time, the party enters the election with 46 people all standing for re-election to the Dáil, and with 80-plus candidates.

As the campaign gets into gear, the party is generally seen as having the upper hand on Fine Gael.

The wind does appear to be at it’s back, as of now. However, it has not managed, in opinion polls, to get significantly ahead of Fine Gael, despite that party being in power for almost a decade.

It was at Fianna Fáil’s ard fheis in 2012 that Micheál Martin gave his first keynote speech as leader.

It was the first Fianna Fáil ard fheis in four years, because of elections and leadership changes.

His speech contained classic Fianna Fáil prose, an apology of sorts, but conditional, with strong shades of defiance and good examples of ‘on the one hand’ reasoning.

There was passive aggressiveness. There was regret, couched in explanation. There was defensiveness.

“We have every right to defend our achievements,” Martin said, and “we have a clear duty to admit our mistakes.”

“It’s not enough to point to the worst world recession in 80 years and the eurozone crisis. Nor to point to the fact that other parties were demanding policies which would have made things worse — that’s for them to answer for,” Martin said.

Finally, he got to the part that those of us sitting in the RDS that night, or tuned in at home, were curious to hear. How would he word it?

“We were in government and we should have acted differently. We made mistakes. We got things wrong. And we are sorry for that.

"No equivocation. No half-apology. Just the plain, unvarnished truth,” he said.

Things have moved on since then, not least our economic recovery. In the intervening period, to be fair, Micheál Martin has, in general, been responsible and careful.

He has led his party in a manner that has helped the country, especially on Brexit, giving the necessary support to Fine Gael.

This week, the party held its first press conference of the general election campaign, in a near city centre location in Dublin, down a laneway, in a low-key, rather dark room.

The colours on the stage, with the party’s campaign slogan, “An Ireland for All”, were painted in matte rather than gloss.

Amongst all the other questions was that key issue of trust, identified, rightly, by Fine Gael as their main opponent’s chief vulnerability.

Gauging the current attitude to Fianna Fáil of voters who jumped ship in 2011, one well-placed Fianna Fáiler estimated that the party’s current “toxicity factor” had improved to around 70/30, “but that 30 could rise the more Fine Gael poke at it”.

Martin was asked if his party had really changed, and how much it had needed to change. If they found themselves back in power, would that change hold?

Martin, inevitably, answered yes to all of the above. Fianna Fáil did “make mistakes in terms of overspending and reducing taxation”, he said.

Since 2011, they were clear that “we needed to change and we have changed”.

The party has been “very rigorous, in terms of adhering to what is right for the country overall”, Martin said. He added that many people had not expected that from Fianna Fáil.

“I think our behaviour has demonstrated a change in approach,” he said.

To some extent, this is true. Indeed, Micheál Martin sounds very plausible. He has led a very impressive recovery for his party.

He can point to a number of examples to back up this more responsible, mature party, which has put country before itself.

And yet. And yet. Can we believe it? Can he speak for all the parliamentary party? Some, of course.

Plus, a Taoiseach would hold all the ace cards, in terms of the political advancement of those around him.

But there are a plethora of examples, in recent years, of Fianna Fáilers who cocked a snook at their leader.

Issues have already been raised as to the calibre of his front bench, and how inexperience might limit the performance of some potential Cabinet members.

But there is a lingering suspicion that Fianna Fáil in government, in power, is a far different beast to the one that we’ve watched over the last few years flirting with sack cloth, ashes, and hitherto unseen humility.

That is one of the key questions for people considering voting Fianna Fáil in this election.

It will not be easy to reach an answer.

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