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

Sat, Mar 22, 2014, 17:49

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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