Key to Fianna Fáil’s recovery is organisational reform

Column: Recent poll ratings bode well for Micheál Martin and his party

Fianna Fáil’s capacity to recover will depend on its leader Micheál Martin’s success in tackling inherent organisational defects. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Fianna Fáil’s capacity to recover will depend on its leader Micheál Martin’s success in tackling inherent organisational defects. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill


In the early hours of yesterday morning the political scientist Prof Ken Carty of the University of British Columbia tweeted a link to this newspaper’s editorial on the resurgence of Fianna Fáil. He added: “Question is whether it has built a new and different kind of organisation.”

Referring to the decision last year to adopt a one-member-one-vote system, Carty in an earlier tweet had suggested that the question for FF “is not poll standing but whether the organisation reforms of 73rd ardfheis have taken”.

Carty has studied and written extensively about competitive party systems world- wide, including in Ireland, and specialises in the structure, organisation and behaviour of political parties. Thirteen months ago he attended FF’s ardfheis as part of a study visit to Dublin to examine how the Irish party system might take shape in the aftermath of the February 2011 election. At that time he saw the key to FF’s survival being a new dynamic which that arise from organisational reform and was impressed by the rapid moves by Micheál Martin to effect such change.

Carty is undertaking this close study of FF’s circumstances for comparative purposes. He noted in his final tweet on Fianna Fáil yesterday that “perhaps the great dominant parties aren’t doomed to extinction”, instancing the recoveries of the Canadian Liberal Party and the Japanese Liberal Democrats.

A close eye on Fianna Fáil’s prospects
Carty is not the only political scientist from abroad keeping a close eye on Fianna Fáil’s prospects for recovery. Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University in London, also tweeted a link to the Irish Times editorial as he finalised a presentation he was due to make to the Fianna Fáil ardfheis last night.

Eighteen months ago Bale, one of the UK’s leading political scientists, published The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron , a detailed account of that party’s slow, tortuous journey to recovery after its resounding defeat by Tony Blair’s New Labour in 1997. In his work on British politics he has turned his attention to how Labour under Ed Miliband contends with its challenge of recovery in opposition.

Bale was invited by FF to last year’s ardfheis to speak about lessons they might learn from the ways in which the Tories coped with loss of power and planned their recovery. Bale had some sobering things to say to FF’s delegates about how the party needed to realise it was despised, how trying to defend its record was a waste of time because voters didn’t want to hear it and how a return to power was likely to take several parliamentary terms.

He also spoke of how FF needed to do all possible, visually and verbally, to signal it had changed. He also spoke about how the lesson of the Conservatives had shown that unless the leader is seen as credible and can “embody” or “incarnate” change the party should dump him.

In a manner similar to Carty’s recent tweets, Bale pointed out that parties with venerable traditions seldom disappear. He reassured them that, notwithstanding the scale of the 2011 setback, FF was unlikely to disappear. Fianna Fáil delegates were both distressed and impressed by Bale’s analysis, which is why the party invited him back this weekend to update his diagnosis in light of the polls and political developments in the past year.

It may gladden the hearts of the Fianna Fáil faithful as they gather that their plight has come to the attention of international specialists in the same way that a patient with a sudden acute illness arouses the interest of top consultants. The challenge for these international experts, and for those of us seeking to assess the party’s current position closer to the scene, is to analyse the recent slight but significant improvement in FF poll ratings.

If the scale and pace of the party’s collapse in the polls from 2009 to 2011 was astonishing, the rise in recent months has been remarkable. Both are probably explained by the underlying economic context. In the same way that the economic collapse generated the volatility that saw Fianna Fáil fall so far before the last election, the enduring economic crisis and the public frustration with the Government’s inability to effect immediate improvement go some way to explaining why some voters are returning to FF.

It is worth nothing that the Fianna Fáil rise comes after a spike for Sinn Féin last year that has settled back and it coincides with an even more dramatic rise in the number of don’t-knows. All of this suggests it is changing voter attitudes to the Government rather than significant change in voter attitude to FF that explains the poll shift. The Government is also taking a hammering on Croke Park II, the property tax and, to some extent, on the proposed abortion legislation.

That said, recent positive poll ratings bode well for Micheál Martin and his party. As it gathers this weekend for its second ardfheis since the disastrous 2011 election FF appears to have answered the question, legitimately raised, as to whether it would survive. Fianna Fáil will survive and on current poll ratings is likely to do so as the largest Opposition party.

Organisational factors also contributed to FF’s near-fatal collapse, not least the hold that money and personal campaigning had on the party organisation. The party’s capacity to effect more substantial recovery will also depend therefore on Micheál Martin’s success in tackling inherent organisational defects.

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