Fianna Fáil has recovered confidence but is careful not to show too much of old swagger
Dublin will be the major focus of party’s efforts in the local and European elections
Delegates in Killarney at the 75th Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis today. Photograph: Cyril Byrne / The Irish Times
George Santayana’s famous line that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it is often quoted with approval by politicians and by political commentators.
The only trouble with that analysis is that most people in just about every society have this annoying tendency of completely forgetting the lessons of the past and repeating all the mistakes they made before.
Look at the way in which the the first puffs of air have been puffed into a new property bubble in the past few weeks, as if the State’s massive property crash had never happened.
Ditto for Fianna Fáil. It is hard to get any sense at this weekend’s Ard Fheis that this is the same party that led the country to the precipice, that got immolated in the 2011 general election, and which faced difficult and searching questions at the time about whether or not it would survive into the future.
Sure the party is still in lessened circumstances and it knows that the road to recovery is going to be a long one. But at the same time its horizons have broadened and there is a strong sense it is confident of a strong bounce-back in this May’s elections.
Beyond that it sees itself and Fine Gael very much re-established as the ‘big two’ by the time of the next general election (notwithstanding the growing threat from Sinn Féin). And beyond that, an opportunity to regain the prime spot perhaps in the middle of the next decade
If there is any realisation of past mistakes, perhaps it is this: that the party will never have that kind of hegemony it enjoyed - almost interrupted - for 80 years.
The party will change. It will be a little more liberal, a little more left of centre, a little more women-centric. But as Fine Gael and Labour’s ‘democratic revolution’ showed, it will not change as much as it thinks it will, or as much as it would like us to think. Its ‘new politics’ will over time - especially if it returns to power - revert to a ‘not so new politics’ and maybe even to ‘old politics’.
That’s not a cynical analysis. It’s just the way that things are in a small, close and cohesive society that can be conservative and resistant to radical change. Incrementalism, gradualism and micro-change reflect the way that society evolves. Parties in this society tend to reflect that.
Electorally, there is no doubt that Fianna Fáil is, as they say in the Gaeltacht, “ar ais ar a shean-léim” (back to its old leap) and is beginning to express the ambition you would not have heard two years ago, or even a year ago.
That said, party TDs and strategists are being very careful to manage expectations. The local and European elections aren’t going to produce any Lazarus-like miracles, or 1977 landslides, or Bertie’s third term.
As a point of fact, the party is unsure if it can match its mediocre 2009 local election results. Then it got 25.4 per cent of the vote. That was a poor result at the time but a hell of a lot better than the general election a year and a half later, when it got 17 per cent of the popular vote.