Ahern was Fianna Fail trump card in appealing to electorate


ANALYSIS/Fianna Fail: Fianna Fail offered the people what they wanted in terms of economic prosperity and they voted for it in large numbers, writes Mark Brennock, Political Correspondent

The catastrophe suffered by Fine Gael shows that the old Civil War divide in Irish politics is over. But the performance of the other side of that divide, Fianna Fáil, also shows that the view of Irish politics as Fianna Fáil versus the rest is also now out of date.

Just 41.5 per cent of the national vote brought Fianna Fáil within a whisker of an overall Dáil majority. The astonishing seat bonus was possible as a result of a breakdown of traditional voting patterns. Significant numbers voting for Opposition parties and independents do not see themselves primarily as anti-Fianna Fáil voters. They did not use their lower preferences to vote for a straight anti-Fianna Fáil ticket, and enough of them transferred to Fianna Fáil candidates to give the party a significant boost.

The single most important factor in the broadening of the party's appeal has been Bertie Ahern. Sold by the party during the campaign more as charismatic celebrity than sober political leader, Mr Ahern's personal appeal and popularity went way beyond the confines of his own party.

But while it was a major triumph to win so many seats on the basis of a 41.5 per cent share of the vote, it was also an achievement to win that 41.5 per cent in the first place. The party has conducted extensive market research throughout the term of the Government and right through this campaign. Not for them the old-fashioned notion of writing a programme you believe in and selling it to the people. The scientific research was used to judge the public mood very accurately, and then to devise a product that the public would be certain to buy.

The research showed that enormous numbers of people felt better off now than they did five years ago and would vote for someone who would keep things that way. Opinion polls showed people saying that health was the biggest issue. But the more focused in-depth market research showed that the group who saw the protection of their prosperity as the key issue was big enough to re-elect a Government who ran on that basis.

So when the Fianna Fáil manifesto was published at the outset of the campaign, the party made sure to point out that it was fiscally conservative. There were no extravagant promises. Rather than concentrate on offering exotic new policy departures to the voters, Fianna Fáil concentrated all its efforts on portraying Fine Gael as fiscally reckless, and Labour's revenue-raising measures as threatening jobs and future pensions.

They controlled the agenda completely for the crucial first period of the campaign, putting Fine Gael in particular on the back foot, dealing with claims that their figures didn't add up. The one campaign event on which they were vulnerable - the television debate between Mr Ahern and Mr Noonan - was postponed until the very end of the campaign when it would have minimum impact.

Fianna Fáil was aided greatly by Fine Gael's crisis of identity and the failure of its leader to be seen as a credible alternative Taoiseach. Fianna Fáil was pleased at the Fine Gael decision to oust Mr Bruton. Nine months before the successful heave against him, a senior Fianna Fáil Minister speculated privately that Fine Gael would do just that. "Fine Gael are going to dump Bruton and hand us the election" he said.

The Minister believed that Mr Bruton, for all his charisma deficit, was a former Taoiseach who was seen as a man of substance and unimpeachable integrity. In an election campaign, he would be seen as a credible alternative Taoiseach, while none of the replacements on offer would. He was right, and the late holding of the debate robbed Mr Noonan of an opportunity to put himself forward as such an alternative.

This was a stroke of luck, but the party created its own good fortune too. There were ruthless vote-splitting arrangements throughout the State as party headquarters pushed its high vote getters to work to bring in their running mates.

The strategy was spectacularly successful for example in Cork South West, where the Minister for Agriculture, Mr Joe Walsh, brought in his running mate, Senator Denis O'Donovan, against all expectations. However, others paid a very high price for the high-wire strategy of hiving off some of their vote to running mates. Mrs Mary O'Rourke in Westmeath, Mr Brendan Kenneally in Waterford and Mr Hugh Byrne in Wexford saw their running mates replace them, rather than join them, in the Dáil. The pre-election opinion polls, together with the seat gain, exaggerate the scale of the Fianna Fáil victory. Facing a Fine Gael Party that was in complete meltdown mode, an increase in vote share of 2 per cent does not in itself represent a landslide. It was the attraction of transfers and good vote management that turned the increase into such a triumph.The party leadership appears disposed to reinstate the current Coalition Government, despite hopes in some parts of the Fianna Fáil organisation of a return to the good old days of single-party government.

Mr Ahern's legendary caution will attract him greatly to the prospect of leading a stable government with close to 90 Dáil seats.

However, to do so will probably require concessions to the PDs that some party loyalists, flushed with success, would baulk at.

Mr Ahern, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Cowen, and the Minister for Health, Mr Martin, have all indicated that their choice would be to return to government with the PDs.

The loss of Mary O'Rourke's Dáil seat will make it easier for Mr Ahern to accommodate any PD demand for an extra Cabinet place.

Mr Ahern spoke before the election about the fact that the current ministerial team had been in place for some time, and that he would consider making some changes.

Among the older Ministers, Mr Joe Walsh has just brought in a running mate to take a Fine Gael seat, while Mr Michael Smith in Tipperary North also brought in a running mate.

Mr Ahern tends to reward selfless electoral success, and so these two may feel there is more life yet in their ministerial careers.