Analysis: Fianna Fáil still struggling to make itself heard

FF still hasn’t got the public support it needs to convalesce completely

Senator Thomas Byrne, Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin, Sean Haughey and Maureen Haughey, daughter of Sean Lemass at the unveiling of the Fianna Fail party’s programme of events to mark the centenary of the 1916 rising. Photograph: Alan Betson /The Irish Times

Senator Thomas Byrne, Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin, Sean Haughey and Maureen Haughey, daughter of Sean Lemass at the unveiling of the Fianna Fail party’s programme of events to mark the centenary of the 1916 rising. Photograph: Alan Betson /The Irish Times

 

A little like the Irish language, most discussion on Fianna Fáil these days tends to be the existential question about its survival prospects.

The party may have been on life support in early 2011, but four years later you would have expected it to have finished its convalescence and thrown away the crutches.

Instead, it finds itself still struggling to garner the kind of level of public support it needs to re-establish it firmly as one of the big two.

It is true opinion polls give relatively crude indications of real support levels but as they are the only indicators besides elections, everybody relies on them including the political parties themselves, most of which conduct private polls. Over a long period of time, if a party’s support level isn’t budging or is slipping, it is inevitable that alarm bells will ring.

Fianna Fáil’s showing of 17 per cent in the latest Irish Times/Ipsos mrbi polls reflects a pattern that has been evident for a year - that the party does not seem to be going anywhere. Since May 2014, the polls have consistently shown the party at around this level - a trend that suggests inertia, or to use Eamon O Cuív’s term, a party that is “becalmed”.

Invariably, new questions have arisen surrounding Micheál Martin’s authority, given extra urgency by recent criticisms of his leadership and the party’s direction by John McGuinness and - over the weekend - O Cuív. The latter said the party’s morale was on the floor. He also argued it needs to be more radical, in taking on not only the government but also in tackling the emerging threat of Sinn Féin.

Is there an immediate threat to Martin’s leadership? The indications are no. He leads a much enfeebled (and predominantly male) parliamentary party and as Willie O’Dea noted recently, there is no Messiah to be seen when he looks around the party rooms, including when he looks in the mirror. Last Saturday-week on Claire Byrne’s show on RTÉ Radio One, McGuinness said he would like to lead Fianna Fáil but he is unlikely to garner significant support.

Two events in coming months will become critical for Martin. The first is his need for a strong and buoyant Árd Fheis in Dublin at the end of April. The party needs to come out of it with significant eye-catching policies, and also demonstrate that it can offer the electorate different choices and real alternative in terms of policy positions. It is just not doing that at the moment. It has published around 20 policy papers. Some are worthy (suicide prevention; mental health; youth unemployment; solutions to help those in mortgage arrears) but the party needs to deal with the big bests (health and education, the future of the economy) in a meaningful way.

Morale-boost

Secondly, the party badly needs a morale-boosting win in the Carlow-Kilkenny byelection the following month. Its candidate Bobby Aylward is the front-runner at the moment, but because these second-tier polls are so unpredictable, that situation could easily be reversed over the next two months.

Indeed, that election might be a critical test of Martin as leader. Some critics say he has been too cautious, too risk-averse when it comes to pushing through major internal change or reform. “He just needs to start taking more chances and to take on other parties head-on,” said one of its Leinster House team yesterday.

Byelection losses have led to leadership moves before. Jack Lynch’s decision to step down as taoiseach in 1979 was said to have been triggered by two by-election losses. However, given the lack of a ready-made replacement within the parliamentary party, that is highly unlikely.

The detailed breakdown of the figures in the Irish Times poll last week makes for sober reading for the party. It is achieving only 13 per cent of the popular vote in the city, lagging behind both Fine Gael and Sinn Féin. Translated that means no more than a handful of seats for the party. It should win in Dublin-Fingal where Senator Darragh O’Brien is its standard bearer. It also has a strong chance in the five-seater Dublin Bay North and in Dun Laoghaire.

All in all that is a total of between three and five seats in the capital, which will still put it in the same place as Fine Gael was in 2002.

To add to its woes, Fianna Fáil has a defector in its ranks. Its young Kilkenny councillor Patrick McKee has been poached by Renua Ireland and will be unveiled as its candidate for the election in Carlow-Kilkenny.

He is currently leas-chathaoirleach of the council and has even been photographed out on the canvass trail with the Fianna Fáíl candidate Bobby Aylward.

It’s not though at present that he has a realistic hope of winning a seat but he could discommode the front-runner Aylward enough to let somebody else in.

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