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

Delegates in Killarney at the 75th Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis today. Photograph: Cyril Byrne / The Irish Times

Sat, Mar 22, 2014, 17:49

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.

Micheál Martin and his senior colleagues have been careful not to predict how many seats the party will win in the local elections. He got a lot of coverage over the past 24 hours with his claims about Phil Hogan’s gerrymandering of local electoral areas.

But the truth is that Fianna Fáil might well be a net beneficiary of those changes. And because the overall number of full council seats is increasing to 960, it means a party like Fianna Fáil can sustain a drop in percentage support and still win more than the 218 seats it won in 2009. It will then come down to how it presents the figures. That, of course, will go for every other party.

So expectations have been tempered. Like other national conventions, a lot of what goes on is pro forma. An important part of the exercise for the party this weekend was to showcase all its new candidates. And that it did, a conveyor belt of young earnest council wannabes, mixing nervousness and high idealism on the main stage.

Party strategists keep on saying it is not the number but the quality of person we get elected. Their argument is that they need good young representatives for all the places where the party has no national representation, but where it hopes to recover in 2016. There is some merit in that thinking but at the same time politics is a numbers game and you sometimes need to get there fastest with the mostest.

The other big focus this weekend is Dublin. The party was annihilated there in 2011 and the party has struggled to implement the same injection of organisational change and renewal as it has elsewhere. There has been a greater ruthlessness there in terms of selection of candidates. And it is clear that the party has bowdlerised Frank Flannery’s famous 2002 rulebook for Fine Gael, where Dublin was identified as the key to recovery.

Mary Fitzpatrick is an astute choice of candidate and has a biddable chance of winning a seat (although the quote of 25 per cent is a big ask). If she does, Fianna Fáil reckon it will allow it send out the same message of being back as Fine Gael sent out in 2004 when it got Gay Mitchell past the post.

A substantial increase in its paltry representation on the four local authorities in Dublin can reinforce the message. It can also position the party to win a slew of Dublin seats in the next general election, almost one per constituency.

There is also the questions surrounding Micheál Martin’s leadership. If anything, the debate about his connection with the former administration has receded. His leadership is settled and - and this moment in time - there is no potential rival on the horizon. The debate will begin to focus on the quality of his leadership. He has certainly brought some strengths to the role - including personal integrity - but he has not always picked his fights or his tactics wisely, and has found himself outmanoeuvred and bested on occasion by Enda Kenny, Eamon Gilmore, Gerry Adams and Mary Lou McDonald.

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