Soldiers of Destiny emerge from shadow of annihilation and look to brighter future
Fianna Fáil activists are more hopeful – just don’t the mention the crash
Miche ál Martin: allies say his support for the fiscal treaty was astute, likewise the decision not to contest the presidential election. Photograph: Alan Betson
Fianna Fáil’s ardfheis opens tonight in Dublin, the second since the party’s abject defeat in the 2011 election. The gathering comes amid resurgence in the polls, raising hope within the party that it can eventually overcome the dismal legacy of the Ahern and Cowen years. But is a humbled Fianna Fáil really on the cusp of a comeback?
Not quite – the party has some considerable way to go before it can retrieve its verve as an electoral force. Still, the sense in Fianna Fáil circles is that the party has probably quashed the existential threat it faced after voters deposed it from office.
The sense then was that any defections or any grave political missteps might set in train an irreversible implosion. It didn’t happen, although survival was far from certain.
This is the position from which Micheál Martin and his depleted parliamentary party are seeking to engineer recovery. Martin’s allies say his support for the fiscal treaty was astute, likewise the decision not to contest the presidential election. (The leader’s dalliance with Gay Byrne is viewed less favourably.) Yet it’s a long haul. Fianna Fáil has no more than 19 TDs, it can no longer throw battalions of political heavyweights into the fray and it is weak on the policy front.
Stalwarts bemoan a lack of energy and dynamism. For some, exhaustion prevails. The organisation is stretched.
The sense remains that some in the old guard remain in a state of denial. While former ceann comhairle John O’Donoghue has declared that he wants to run again in Kerry, internal party critics argue that putting any beneficiary of a gold-plated ministerial pension on the ticket would court only trouble.
Such thinking helps explain the lack of enthusiasm for the notion of former minister Mary Hanafin seeking a nomination to contest the European election in Dublin.
Thus the intrigue and the infighting continues. Among those who stayed on in camp after the 2011 catastrophe, there is some displeasure at the reappearance of some old faces since the polls turned.
The focus now is on preparations for the local and European elections next year, the aim being to establish credible young candidates for a run at the Dáil in 2015 or 2016. There is still some anticipation that the party could win 40 Dáil seats or 45 on a good day, but there are many variables and the challenges are huge.
Fianna Fáil had a torrid time in the 2009 local election, taking 25.38 per cent of the first-preference vote.
With opinion poll support around that level now, the point is repeatedly made that it would merely hold its own with a similar performance next year.
At the same time, the likelihood of a reformed electoral system providing up to 10 seats in some wards presents an opportunity.
The current fixation is on the drive to bring forward a new generation of Fianna Fáilers, with an emphasis on female candidates.
The party has developed a network of “local area representatives” to act as standard-bearer in constituencies where it has no Dáil representation, the hope being to bring in fresh support. These are known internally as the “Lars”. The perception is that they have been handpicked for greater things. “The Lars will be the stars,” quips a party wag.
Those on the inside track include David McCann in Ballybrack, Dublin, as well as Lorraine Clifford in Dublin South Central, Sarah Ryan in Dublin South, Lisa Chambers in Mayo, Claudia Kennedy in Donegal, and Kate Feeney from Sligo, who recently became the first female president of Ógra Fianna Fáil.
Whether they do the business remains to be seen. In party circles, however, the Government’s lack of popularity is seen as an opportunity.
But this is true for all Opposition parties, and the growing band of sole-trader Independents.
Neither can Fianna Fáil obscure the fact that its actions in power are still blamed for the crash. With taxpayers on the hook for a relentless cascade of expensive corrective measures and hundreds of thousands out of work, the party is still subject to withering opprobrium for its misdeeds in office.
Party insiders do not deny the party’s role and they insist they recognise the magnitude of the fall.
Yet they say there is no point is allowing “the past” to keep them down. “It’s a bit like having your hand amputated at one point,” laments one TD. “There’s no getting away from the fact – and you have to get on with life.”
This is immutable weakness that everyone in the Government – from the Taoiseach down – is still keen to exploit. Within Fianna Fáil, however, the argument goes that the Coalition’s ritualistic attacks on the parlous state of affairs it inherited from the party is wearing thin with the public. In the words of one self-confident apparatchik, angry voters who held Fianna Fáil to account in 2011 with a severe punishment beating now have their focus trained on the incumbent administration.
This person does not suggest the public has moved on entirely, rather that the culpability question is overplayed both by the media the Government. There’s no small self-interest in that assessment, certainly.
Still, the strong showing of Fianna Fáil candidate Senator Thomas Byrne in the Meath-East byelection is seen as a clear sign that some voters are willing to look anew at the party.
Labour’s exceptionally poor showing in the byelection is also deemed to be salutary. Byrne received 8,002 first-preference votes, almost 2,700 more than in the 2011 election. It was not enough to deprive Helen McEntee of the seat. In Government circles, however, it is readily acknowledged that Fine Gael would have lost the seat were it not for the tragic circumstances of the case.
This experience, allied with positive poll results, has given a degree of succour to Fianna Fáil.
The last Ipsos/mrbi poll for The Irish Times, in February, showed support running at 26 per cent, the highest of all parties and twice the level in April last year.
Yet this is a nuanced picture. Fianna Fáil support is older, and strongest in primarily rural parts of the State.
Its best showing was in the poorest DE social category, among farmers and in the C1 lower middle-class group. The party was stronger than all others in Connacht-Ulster and Munster and had equal support to Fine Gael in Leinster.
In Dublin, however, Fianna Fáil was well back from the rest. This remains a major lacuna. Fianna Fáil does not have a single TD in the capital, a bitter reflection on the collapse of the Ahern ascendancy.
Fightback in Dublin
Although former Dublin Mid-West TD John Curran has been tasked with leading the fightback in Dublin, he is working off a flimsy base and the lack of any imposing figurehead in the city is palpable.
Indeed, the ardfheis discussion on Dublin will be chaired by Clare TD Timmy Dooley.
Still, the party sees high potential in the city for Senators Darragh O’Brien and Averil Power and councillors Mary Fitzpatrick and Jim O’Callaghan.
In age terms, the last poll showed support for Fianna Fáil was highest among the over-65s.
While this is the most significant cohort when it comes to turnout at election time, it is a given that the party will need to broaden the base considerably to secure recovery.