Soldiers of destiny return from political wilderness
Fianna Fáil is biding its time, preparing for what the party faithful believe will be its inevitable return to power
James Lawless, editor of Cuisle, the Fianna Fáil newsletter, at his stand on the second day of the party’s 74th Ardfeis in the RDS. Photograph: Alan Betson
This will go down as one of the most nondescript of the 74 ardfheiseanna that Fianna Fáil has held.
There was none of the messianic adulation that marked the Haughey era.
There was none of the divisive froth and anger of, say, the conference that followed the arms trial in 1971. When party rebel Kevin Boland tried to speak from the stage, Paddy Hillery roared: “Ye can have Boland, but ye can’t have Fianna Fáil!”
There was no display of the arrogant self-certainty of the tribe, the moment when Brian Cowen wondered aloud about coalition partners the Progressive Democrats to the 1992 ardfheis: “And what about the PDs?” he mused. “When in doubt leave out.”
This weekend’s FF Ardfheis, Micheál Martin’s second as leader, was uneventful and as muted as it is possible for these occasions to be. The rhetorical and emotional pitch was low key, including Martin’s key address to about 2,000 delegates on Saturday night.
The strategy was deliberate and suits the party at this stage of its journey along the road from perdition. Last year’s ardfheis, the first since the 2011 general election, was the watershed one that would determine its long-term political prospects.
It is midway through the Government’s term, too early to be in election mode or to start pumping up the volume, even for the local and European elections next year. Only recently has the party emerged from political purdah and become more emboldened and opportunistic. The ambitious project to reform the party – and also the wider body politic – is at a relatively early stage.
Fianna Fáil has been buoyed by recent opinion poll surges and a solid performance in the Meath East byelection. It is evident it is gaining traction and that the hegemony of the big two parties in Irish politics has been re-established. This year Sinn Féin no longer seems to pose the same disruptive threat to it.
But one byelection does not a government make. Fianna Fá
il is still weak in Dublin and needs to do well in the local elections. Even with its legion of bright young iPad-toting local area representatives, it might struggle to emulate the 2009 results (which seemed terrible at the time). It also needs to come to terms with the reality it will be a long time (and maybe never) before it becomes the dominant party again.
That said, the mood at the weekend was settled and confident, a party that seems comfortable in its own skin, that senses it is on the way back. And nowhere was that more apparent than in the leader. A year ago, it was said of Martin that he was damaged goods, having been 14 years in government, that he was an interim leader at most, the first Fianna Fáil chief who would never be taoiseach. The doubts about him have been largely dispelled within the party. He is now viewed by colleagues as a credible leader who may be in place for a decade.
Repeatedly this weekend the party cast itself as a responsible Opposition, Fianna Fáil’s updated version of the Tallaght Strategy.
“If you want destructive politics-as-usual, if you want blinkered all-out opposition, then the Fianna Fáil party I lead is not for you,” said Martin in his keynote address.
As Alan Dukes found out to his cost 25 years ago the approach is high-risk.
In recent months though, the Fianna Fáil version of it is panning out as Opposition that is less brazen than Sinn Féin but becoming more brazen nonetheless. A few populist stances have crept into the narrative. The most notable is its opposition to the property tax for which it had paved the way in government (oh, the irony!). A new theme was unveiled by Martin and finance spokesman Michael McGrath at the weekend: a nascent opposition to the type of austerity measures that have marked budgetary policy over the past five years. They argued that the deal on the promissory note – with its annual fiscal fillip of €1 billion – is a game changer that should allow a lower tax burden, more capital spending, fewer cuts.
To be sure, the party has argued from well-researched positions – backed up by drafted legislation – on mortgage distress and home repossessions. But there is a thin line between being constructive and cynical in Opposition and it will need to tread carefully. Speaking of treading carefully, the four motions on abortion were the only agenda items with potential for discord. The motions argued, at a minimum, that the Government’s proposed legislation be rejected. In the event, all but one of the many speakers supported the motions and they were passed by huge majorities. It was noteworthy that nobody in a leadership position was involved in the debate or responded in any way. Nor did the leader’s speech make reference to an issue which will dominate domestic politics between now and the summer.
If the draft abortion legislation had been published as promised last week, it would have put the leadership into a more sticky position and would have made debate unavoidable.
What is important is this: the ardfheis decisions will inform, but will not be binding on
the parliamentary party.
Internally, big changes are afoot that will change the complexion of the party.
One intriguing suggestion is the holding of a national conference to decide if the party enters a coalition arrangement. A recurrent fear expressed by its TDs and Senators is about a possible scenario that would have Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil being the biggest parties in a volatile environment, where an anti-party vote returns a high percentage of independents. That would mean huge pressure on both to form a grand coalition, which both will resist. Putting it to convention (where rejection could be all but guaranteed) could give the leadership political cover. Another mooted change will involve the membership in the election of party leader. This is a big move away from a very Fianna Fáil phenomenon, the notion of an all-powerful chief or boss, uno duce un a voce . Which might also conspire to make future conference more responsible, if equally nondescript.