FF in the Doldrums
Deaglán de Bréadún
I am reproducing below an analysis piece on Fianna Fail which appeared in last Tuesday’s print edition of The Irish Times. It was written before the Taoiseach’s Morning Ireland interview and the subsequent storm that broke when Fine Gael TD Simon Coveney suggesed in a Tweet that Mr Cowen may have been drunk. Some people were kind enough to say the piece herewith was “prescient” but others may have a different view!
Soldiers of Destiny face up to ‘saving the
DEAGLÁN de BRÉADÚN
Tue, Sep 14, 2010
STATE OF THE PARTIES: PART 1: FIANNA FÁIL: ANALYSIS: The party is confronting the crisis in the hope voters realise it’s not about politics anymore
THE FIANNA Fáil party is like a prisoner on death row who is facing the prospect of execution between now and the middle of 2012 but still hopes against hope that somehow or other his sentence will be commuted and maybe even a pardon granted.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Having won a famous victory against the odds in the general election of 2007, the Soldiers of Destiny assumed they would be taking up where they left off, as the party of near-permanent government.
That election was won by Brian Cowen, who effectively took over the reins from an embattled and unnerved Bertie Ahern, led the troops unflinchingly into the fray and emerged with the big prize. Within a year, Cowen had replaced Ahern as Taoiseach. He had brains to burn, no baggage over “dig-outs” and dinners, and conveyed a Lemass-type no-nonsense image as a practical politician who got things done.
But the sunny days of the Celtic Tiger were coming to a dramatic end. The endless summer of our prosperity was a delusion which gave way to the nuclear winter of a worldwide recession rendered doubly toxic by a domestic disaster in the property and banking sectors.
Brian Cowen now resembles the captain of a winning All-Ireland team who takes a deep draught from the Sam Maguire or Liam MacCarthy cup, only to discover that the champagne has been poisoned.
This week the party’s TDs and Senators have assembled in Galway for the ritual “think-in” that precedes the opening of the new Dáil term.
The focus has been on jobs and employment creation with a closing session this morning where guest speakers explore the sober topic of “Banking and Credit”.
Party cheerleaders are eager to point out that the emphasis is on practical policy matters, unlike the Fine Gael gathering in Waterford last week which they seek to portray as an unwarranted display of pre-election brashness.
The assumption that a general election is inevitable in the next nine or 10 months is challenged by some Fianna Fáil insiders who recall similar predictions in previous Dáil sessions which proved to be unfounded. But others in the party anticipate that, with three probable byelection defeats looming some time in the new year, the Dáil is likely to be dissolved by June at the latest. Given the extremely poor ratings of the party and its leader in the opinion polls, it is clear that TDs are getting increasingly anxious about their prospects of survival.
The continuing and disastrous saga of Anglo Irish Bank has not helped to steady nerves. “Maybe we should be hopping up and down like lunatics over Anglo,” a Dublin deputy said at the weekend, “but on the other hand, who knows what would have happened if you let the bank go?”
The party leader’s approach to communications remains a concern, even to his supporters. “He has done so many things right,” said a Cowen loyalist. “But he knows he has a communications problem and yet does nothing about it.” A series of party heavyweights had tried to get this issue addressed, the backbench deputy continued. “They told him what he should do and he has ignored their advice.”
Some of the blame is being placed on Cowen’s staff and advisers for allegedly allowing a vacuum to develop whereby the Government is taking most of the flak for the financial crisis instead of the bankers and regulators, who have gotten off relatively lightly.
Whereas Fianna Fáil won the last election because of its perceived economic competence, it has now become what one senior party figure called “the ogre” in the political melodrama and has failed to present an opposing narrative.
At the same time, considerable personal sympathy exists in the party for the burden Cowen must carry, willy-nilly, as head of Government in the middle of the greatest economic disaster we have faced. “I would say it has taken lumps out of him,” said one close observer. But the same source said this was no excuse for Cowen’s overcasual approach to priceless media encounters where an audience of maybe half a million or more listeners or viewers would be waiting for a word of encouragement or inspiration.
Although Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan’s star and his grasp of commercial realities have been somewhat tarnished as the scale of the Anglo debacle has begun to emerge, there is almost universal agreement among Fianna Fáil sources that, health permitting, the leadership is his for the taking anytime he wants it. But there is no evidence of any plotting over the summer. “Everyone was asleep,” said a Munster deputy. Nor is there any sign of an overt challenge to Cowen’s leadership although that could change if the opinion polls got even worse than they are now.
There is an argument that, whoever takes the helm, the Fianna Fáil Titanic is going to meet that electoral iceberg. Not so, say party loyalists, pointing to what they regard as serious weaknesses on the Opposition. The Fine Gael leader, for example, is dismissed as “Kenny Lite” and even one of Cowen’s sharpest critics in the party said the best thing Fianna Fáil has going for it is that, “people just laugh at the phrase, ‘taoiseach Enda Kenny’.”
Likewise, Labour leader Eamon Gilmore is described as “not credible” and “soundbite man”. A top Fianna Fáil adviser lamented that, “Labour are getting away with absolute murder” because the media were allowing the party to criticise Government policy without advancing plausible alternatives.
Although the party has fallen on hard times in the polls, Fianna Fáil sources insist the activist base is still sound, with regional and constituency conferences attended by different Ministers at a range of venues, including a city-centre hotel in Dublin, attracting sizeable attendances.
More of these events are planned and work is under way to identify likely election candidates under the direction of Minister for Transport Noel Dempsey. Although the party’s fortunes have waxed and waned over the years and even decades, there has never been a shortage of prospective TDs putting their names forward.
Conor Cruise O’Brien once wrote that even if a political stake were driven through the heart of his arch-foe Charles J Haughey, he would still wear a clove of garlic round his neck, “just in case”, and the same could be said of the Fianna Fáil party in general, which can never be totally written off in electoral terms.
Reflecting this perspective, a Dublin backbencher said he was praying that, “the public may say, ‘we absolutely hate you bastards, but you are the only shower of so-and-sos who can keep the show on the road’.” Others in the party were less optimistic, suggesting that Cowen’s day-to-day persona was too well-known for him to transmute into an electoral dynamo when the country goes to the polls again.
In any case, the crisis is too deep for any political gimmick or stroke to transform public opinion. A party strategist said the minds of the voters tended to crystallise at a late stage and that Cowen’s strongest argument is that he did the right thing for the sake of the country and took the inevitable consequences.
“There’s no political rabbit in the hat. It’s not about politics any more, it’s about saving the nation,” the strategist continued. “The issue is self-belief.”
BY THE NUMBERS: FIANNA FÁIL’S KEY INDICES:
NUMBER OF TDs IN PARLIAMENTARY PARTY
PERCENTAGE OF VOTE IN 2007 GENERAL ELECTION
PERCENTAGE OF VOTE IN 2009 LOCAL ELECTIONS
PERCENTAGE OF VOTE IN JUNE 2010 IRISH TIMES POLL
Deaglán de Bréadún is Political Correspondent
© 2010 The Irish Times