Fianna Fáil makes headway in shaking off image as a toxic political brand
Fianna Fáil local area representative Lorraine Clifford and party activist Dr Ciaran McMahon in Dublin. photograph: alan betson
Micheál Martin’s campaign to rejuvenate the party is paying off
Reports of Fianna Fáil’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. But so too have reports that Lazarus has been spotted at cumann meetings in recent weeks busily scribbling notes.
For those who witnessed Fianna Fáil’s collapse in the general election in 2011, last week’s Irish Times opinion poll was certainly a turn-up for the books. The poll results showed Fianna Fáil to be the most supported party ahead of Fine Gael. Moreover, its 26 per cent showing represented a doubling of support since last year, a nine-point gain since the elections, and the third straight gain in a row in this paper’s polling.
So does it mean that Fianna Fáil has bounced back, that all its misdeeds are forgiven and that it can return to the hegemony of Irish politics it enjoyed for eight decades? Not quite, say senior party figures, although there is now evidence to show that support is drifting back towards Fianna Fáil, especially from former members.
“There is absolutely no way we are the biggest party in the country,” a senior party source says.
Still, there has been a palpable change in the disposition of the party since its ardfheis last April. That proved a cathartic moment for the party when it confronted its terrible past, its wretched present and decided it was time to move on.
Having taken a major pounding, the leadership pushed through major reforms last April that would have been unthinkable until a few years ago. The party has busily produced a raft of alternative legislation in keeping with its new “responsible opposition” template. It has also supported the Government on key issues.
The party could hardly do anything else given that it had inherited a T-bone steak economy and turned it into horse meat lasagne. More recently, emboldened by distance and time, it has taken populist and contradictory stances, not least against a property tax that Fianna Fáil itself first proposed.
“We will do everything in the interest of the country even if it damages our support,” says a senior figure on the party’s general approach.
“Take the liquidation of IBRC. It would have been much easier to say no. But that was the wrong thing to do.”
The people part of the equation was more difficult. The party had only 20 TDs and no women in the Dáil. Micheál Martin became leader carrying original sin from the previous regime.
Shorn of its strength and with no moral authority, the party had no choice during the first year in opposition but to wear sackcloth and ashes and cede a lot of ground to Sinn Féin. But what Fianna Fáil did from last year on was take a leaf out of Fine Gael’s manual for recovery after its own debacle in 2002.
There was an arcane system where each and every cumann (the most local unit in the party) had three votes at selection conventions for candidates irrespective of its size or if it was even active. This allowed some incumbents a licence to gerrymander, and was replaced with one member, one vote, which meant candidates could recruit their own members to secure nominations.
That removed the seat-blockers, allowing ambitious young (including female) candidates to emerge.
The second factor concerned Dublin, its commuter hinterland (where those who suffered most from Fianna Fáil excesses lived) which was a wasteland for the party. There was no TD in the capital following Brian Lenihan’s death and few in neighbouring counties. Fianna Fáil plugged that gap by electing local area representatives (LARs), some 60 in all, who essentially fulfilled the same role as councillors but without being elected. It is regarded as effective.
Naas-based James Lawless, a trainee barrister, is one such example. He is also editor of the party’s magazine Cuisle and exemplifies younger Fianna Fáil activists who have come to the fore as LARs.
“There’s opportunity there for people who are interested. The party is very open and if people want things to happen they can make it happen. It’s part of the renewal process,” he says.
Lorraine Clifford is another of the new LARs. A solicitor, she is based in Dublin’s south inner city, once a Fianna Fáil stronghold but without a councillor since 1999. Since becoming a LAR last September, she has campaigned on issues such as the slow pace of regeneration at St Theresa’s Gardens, derelict sites and allotments, crime issues and health issues.
She is one of four LARs in the Dublin South Central constituency. Unlike the country, where the cumann has remained the building block, in the cities there are few if any and it is the LARs who have been given an open brief.
So Clifford has built up a team, headed by Ciaran McMahon, a psychologist and party activist, with her sights on the local elections next year.
For Clifford, Fianna Fáil is in the process of eschewing the years of excess and returning to its more traditional roots.
The new dispensation? “Micheál Martin articulated it best saying Fianna Fáil represents the aspiring working classes. It stands for people who work hard and want to get on, with strong State provision of services. It stands for access to education and healthcare and a level playing field to which every citizen can aspire.”
Interestingly, Clifford and McMahon are among many who point quickly to the positive influence of Martin. When he became leader, he was associated with the discredited regime and many thought of him as an interim choice. But anger has dissipated somewhat and he has proved popular, especially with female voters. A senior TD says there may be a limit to where he can take the party, but it is a higher one than first thought. Martin has used the Bertie Ahern/Enda Kenny formula of non-stop and indefatigable campaigning and touring – visiting all 43 constituencies and spending two days each week meeting the electorate.
Senior party strategists say nothing has been taken for granted. At the ardfheis last year, the British political strategist Tim Bale told delegates bluntly it was folly to believe the problem was the electorate and not the party. The party needed to change dramatically. If not, it would be treading water.
The senior figure’s summation: “We have a long journey to go to rebuild trust. A few opinion polls do not tell us anything. We have to satisfy the electorate that we understand what went wrong and show we won’t let it happen again.
“In the long run the only way is to have better ideas and to be serious about them.”