GERARD HOWLIN: Fianna Fáil unclear about their message and electoral destiny

Micheál Martin has capacity to carry the conversation nationally and he is a man with a political past, a talent that is deeply shadowed, writes Gerard Howlin

THE status of Fianna Fáil as national movement, but no mere political party, was reinforced by the serendipity of the national anthem. “Sinne Fianna Fáil, atá faoi gheall ag Éirinn…” summoned the nation to its flag not only on great occasions but at every dance hall and football final.

When the music stopped and the lights went up most expectations at those dances went unfulfilled.

The one emotion stirred most effectively, was the recurring loyalty of many to the party.

For most of the 20th century Fianna Fáil uniquely assumed the national identity to the extent it was nearly always in government.

Now as it prepares for its 77th ard fheis this weekend, all that is past. The extent of its rise and fall is unparalleled anywhere in the Western democracy.

No party elsewhere governed almost continuously, for so long except the Swedish Social Democrats. In 2011 the extent of the electoral rupture was such that Dáil Éireann saw the third largest turnover of parliamentary seats in any Western democracy since the Second World War.

Others such as the Canadian conservatives in 1993 suffered more catastrophic losses, but they did not fall from the same heights of history.

As it meets for the last time before an election, Fianna Fáil’s recent achievement is that it still exists and is in contention.

Its continuance was not assured in the aftermath of the last election. The scale and circumstance of the economic crash still haunts the party, but after nearly five years of Fine Gael and Labour in government the overhanging clouds have parted slightly.

Prof Michael March’s analysis of a poll of polls for RTÉ’s The Week in Politics puts the party on 20% — barely ahead of Sinn Féin on 19%. Fine Gael is on 30%; Labour on 8%; and the great conundrum of all-others on 37%. But these figures will not survive the test of an actual campaign.

The ongoing dynamic recovery for the government parties may either be arrested by their opponents or let slip by their own incompetence.

The single issue for Fianna Fáil from this weekend until polling closes on a still-to-be-named day at the end of February is to come in from the periphery to centre stage in the national conversation.

Even if reputationally diminished, Fianna Fáil still has residual capacity and some new talent. The key battleground for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in the election is essentially the same.

They are fighting for those who having previously voted for Fianna Fáil, in Phil Hogan’s words, “lent” Fine Gael their vote in 2011.

The hubris and political sectarianism of a newly-arrived Fine Gael in government after 2011, gratuitously wasted a unique opportunity to bind some of that support permanently to itself. You could lend your vote, but you wouldn’t be asked into the parlour.

Some of that vote has gone back to Fianna Fáil and more of it is in-play for the party. The very same vote, is also partly in-play for Fine Gael if they can get a loan of just some of it again.

That is the key battleground.

The problem for Fianna Fáil is twofold. It is a horse that has let the bit slip from between its teeth. It is no longer on course for power.

Many of those who once voted for it have left, horrified by the economic crash.

They are non-ideological pocket-book voters.

They will make a calculation on which party will best serve their own interest as they see it over the next few years and vote accordingly.

There is something to Fine Gael now, of Fianna Fáil in the past. It is simply of their time.

It is precisely because they have the bit of the bridle of government between the teeth that they can make promises to cuts taxes and raise expenditure, apparently credibly if not wisely.

In opposition in 2002 and 2007 similar promises smacked of desperation and undid them. It is all about context and very little to do with substantive policy differences.

In good times the backdrop of government provides credibility and political cover.

The Government spent its first four years in office largely implementing the economic programme Fianna Fáil and the Greens bequeathed to them.

Now in their final months, faced with the exigency of getting re-elected as a government — a challenge they have not faced for 19 years and never achieved successfully — they have adopted the full baroque of the Fianna Fáil electoral style. Preach prudence but spend louchely.

That leaves Fianna Fáil with little to do.

If there is every reason to be circumspect about Fianna Fáil prospects, there is also reason for cautious optimism.

Self-inflicted damage by the Government in early 2014 saw public anger decimate Labour and reduce Fine Gael in city and county councils around the country.

With some new talent locally, Fianna Fáil was a partial beneficiary and got 25% of the vote to become the largest party in local government.

Those new councillors and some stalwarts from the ancien régime comprise an electoral offering now that very probably has more traction on the ground, than the party has standing in national opinion polls.

The parliamentary party is its weakest link. Barely a handful of TDs are credible spokespeople and consistent delivery seems beyond even two or three.

Only the leader, Micheál Martin, has capacity to carry the conversation nationally and he is a man with a political past, a talent that is deeply shadowed.

What is at stake is a new, much larger parliamentary party with energy levels and capacity not enjoyed since the party was previously in opposition 1995-1997.

In the next Dáil with a likely tally of well more than 30 seats, more than half of them new, or newly re-elected, it will be game-on to challenge again for government.

The quandary, as it seeks to rebuild, is, having asserted itself by ruling out coalition with Fine Gael and Sinn Féin, it is to be relevant to the electoral debate.

The campaign will shift perception and sentiment. It will move the dial but you have to be in the fight to get attention.

For now it is unclear what Fianna Fáil’s message and campaign is. This ard fheis is probably the party’s last best platform to spell it out and start momentum.

Perhaps at the end it will be enough to answer as the aristocrat, become catholic bishop, turned revolutionary became Napoleonic minister, turned royalist again only to betray that cause as effortlessly as the others in 1830 to side with the July revolution who, when asked what he did during the French revolution, replied “I survived”.

In a sense, 100 years after our own decade of revolution, we had another one of sorts. Its astonishing feature is not what has been destroyed but, who has survived.

In the longer view of history the seminal fact is that remarkably so too has Fianna Fáil.

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