Analysis: Recovery not assured for floundering Fianna Fáil

No guarantees in volatile political landscape that once powerful machine can rebound

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin’s party has no female TD and no TD in Dublin. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin’s party has no female TD and no TD in Dublin. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

 

The most significant speech of Micheál Martin’s leadership of Fianna Fáil was a low-key affair before a small crowd in the Tipperary village of Ragg on May 16th, 2011.

Three months earlier the unimaginable had happened for the party. After decades of supremacy, the Titanic of Irish politics had met its iceberg.

The date of the speech was significant. May 16th also marked the 85th anniversary of Fianna Fáil’s founding in the La Scala Theatre in Dublin in 1926. Éamon de Valera had set out the party’s republican mantras of economic self-determination, a united Ireland and revival of the Irish language.

Now, Martin set out his own stall, saying he would return the party to its core principles and place its values and ideas once again in the communities from where it sprang. He also turned to less rhetorical but no less radical ideas in the speech, including a root-and-branch reform of party structures such as the introduction of a one-member, one-vote system.

The changes, he argued, would allow a new generation of young politicians, including many women, to emerge to renew the party.

The speech would serve as a blueprint for the party’s recovery. It is interesting to see many of the actual reforms referred to have happened. But as yet, Fianna Fáil has to go from Ragg to riches electorally.

It has relied to an inordinate extent on a respectable result in the local elections last year, where it achieved 25 per cent of the vote, while ignoring a string of less stellar showings in byelections and in the European elections last year (where it won only one seat). In addition, the party has flatlined in opinion polls over the past 12 months, as the support of political rivals increased.

So is the party “becalmed” as Eamon Ó Cuív has described it? Or has the immediate analysis of stasis and inertia within Fianna Fáil ignored the reality that the party’s recovery is a long game that is really only in its initial stages?

On Wednesday afternoon, Micheál Martin sat in his office on the third floor of Leinster House with an air as serene as the sunny spring day outside. When Fine Gael went through its own travails after the 2002 election, Frank Flannery emphasised the virtue of patience when assessing recovery. Martin rejects any suggestion the party is treading water and says it is on track in its recovery.

“There’s an absolute necessity not to be sidetracked or have a knee-jerk reaction to transient things,” he said.

“The way opinion polls dominate debate is extraordinary. I find it odd that people are talking about a post-election scenario already as if the election is already decided.

“If you look at the Labour Party in 2010, it was over 30 per cent in opinion polls. It achieved nothing like that in the election.

“Look at what happened to us in 2011. The renewal of Fianna Fáíl is a phased process and it’s not going to happen overnight. I am heartened by the platform we have now with younger politicians emerging in the locals.

“If you look around the room at conventions you can see candidates of the future that we would not have seen 12 months ago,” he added.

Chris Flood, a former Fianna Fáil minister, agrees. Flood was asked to come up with a strategy for reviving the party in Dublin, where it collapsed in 2011. “At this stage, we cannot expect the party to be driving ahead of others in the polls. We have made great progress structurally and in finding great new candidates.

“We need more progress in this direction and it all takes time. In my own view this is a two-election strategy. We have a tremendous amount of work to be done.”

Unseen work

There seems to be two conflicting narratives. Outside the party, some maintain it is flailing a bit and being bested by rivals, including Sinn Féin. The internal view is that the party has made significant progress but much of its work has been unglamorous and unseen, involving structural change, including bringing in one member, one vote.

Both versions have validity. In its public guise, the party has been like an eagle with clipped wings. It has been downsized from the State’s almost permanent party of government to a niche party which has struggled to define its new role.

In addition, it has no female TD and no TD in Dublin. It has too many within its ranks nearing retirement for who this Dáil term has been a lap of honour. Some of its younger TDs have struggled to adjust to being front bench spokesmen. For a party returning to its roots, there has not been a surge of original new ideas or policies, although its first major policy paper, on health, was produced this week.

Opinion polls and byelections are not definitive indicators but they are still yardsticks. All political parties need “events” from time to time, if nothing else to serve as morale boosters. That is why the Carlow-Kilkenny byelection on May 22nd has come to be seen as significant and also why there has been some muttering about Martin’s leadership.

However, Willie O’Dea’s wry observation he can’t see any other Messiah in the parliamentary rooms, including in the mirror, is probably accurate.

Flannery’s plan for Fine Gael could have been a template for Fianna Fáil. After the 2002 general election defeat and his accession to Fine Gael leader, Enda Kenny spent a year touring the constituencies and building up the organisation. It took two years before substantial policy papers were produced. However, at a similar stage, Fine Gael seemed to be at a more advanced point.

But Martin argues the political landscape is more complex nowadays and it is too early for Fianna Fáil to be revealing all its cards. He talks about returning to roots, about an economy that works not for its own sake but for the good of all society, where people are not left behind. He puts particular emphasis on education and health.

Equal chance

“The republican ethos ensures we look after working people and also ensures there is equality of opportunity. Irrespective of your background you get an equal chance of life. Education is central to that.”

So too is healthcare, he says, adding “we can’t promise everything, but we do believe in common decency”.

How this translates into tangible policy and aims will be disclosed over the next 12 months.

Early after the 2011 general election defeat, Fianna Fáil dismissed Sinn Féin as a threat, saying it had taken little of its vote. That is no longer the attitude and it has been notable Fianna Fáil has made very strong political attacks on Sinn Féin of late. However, the party has insisted the electoral threat posed by Sinn Féin has been overstated.

So where is Fianna Fáil? Its membership is 20,000, it says, and it expects to have an impressive 3,000 at its Ardfheis in the RDS this weekend. It also points to 1,200 people turning out in Kerry for a Dáil selection convention.

That said, this has failed to make much impact with a wider public and there is a sense the party needs to catch a lucky break. Martin has had a good week with generally positive feedback from his Late Late Show appearance and a perception he scored some points over Sinn Féin.

But in Dublin the party has a good chance of winning seats in only five of the 11 constituencies (Fingal, Dublin Bay North, Dublin West, Dublin South West, and Dún Laoghaire) with more marginal chances in others. And it is not guaranteed a seat in all constituencies outside Dublin.

Flood is right. It’s a two-election strategy. And there are no guarantees in a more volatile political landscape that it can stave off long-term decline.

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