‘Recovery for All’ translates into realpolitik English as ‘Recovery for Fianna Fáil’
Delegates quietly confident of election bounce-back in May, but scope is limited
Micheál Martin with (from left) Seán Fleming TD, Margaret Conlon, Monaghan candidate, Cllr Mary Fitzpatrick, Dublin European candidate Kate Feeney and Frank Kennedy, candidates for Dublin. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
It was hard to get any sense at this weekend’s Fianna Fáil’s ardfheis that this is the same party that led the country to the precipice, that got hammered in the 2011 general election, and that faced difficult and searching questions at the time about whether or not it would survive.
Sure the party is still in lesser 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 that it is confident of a strong bounce-back in May’s elections. Beyond that it sees itself and Fine Gael being very much re-established as the “big two” by the time of the next election (notwithstanding the growing threat from Sinn Féin). And beyond that, an opportunity to regain the prime spot.
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”.
Electorally, there is no doubt that Fianna Fáil is on a long- term upward curve (although it has slowed down of late).
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, when it won 218 seats. 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 weekend for 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.
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 wannabees, mixing nervousness and high idealism on the main stage.
Questions continue to surround Micheál Martin’s leadership. If anything, the debate about his connection with the former administration has receded.
His leadership is settled and – right now – there is no potential rival on the horizon.
His speech was a little workmanlike. It had a good seam of thought on the creation of a two-tiered society, on his party’s ideas for education and mental health, and an old-fashioned attack on Alan Shatter. But it won’t be lodged in the memory banks.
Most party leaders will be saving their Gettysburg addresses for closer to 2016.
The other big focus this weekend was Dublin. The party was annihilated there in 2011 and the party has been more clinical in choosing candidates in the capital.
Mary Fitzpatrick was an astute choice of candidate for the European election and has a reasonable chance of winning a seat. If she does, Fianna Fáil reckon it will allow it send out the same message of recovery sent out by Fine Gael in 2004 with Gay Mitchell’s achievement.
Good performances by its local candidates would also position the party to win a slew of Dublin seats in the next general election, almost one per constituency.
Indeed, with Patrick Nulty’s dramatic resignation overshadowing Martin’s leader speech, its first opportunity to make a gain in the capital will come later this year, when David McGuinness will be the hot favourite to win the Dublin West byelection.
The theme of the ardfheis was, incidentally, “Recovery for All”. The bit of political parlance translates into realpolitik English as “Recovery for Fianna Fáil”.