Delegates at the Fianna Fáil ardfheis differed on whether the party should go into coalition with Fine Gael after the general election.
But there was a strong sense of unity in the quest to secure the maximum number of seats facing into the election. The mood was upbeat and positive, with strong support for Micheál Martin’s leadership.
A sample of delegates’ views revealed long-serving members of the party mostly ruled out going into government with Fine Gael, while some of the younger activists said it should be considered if the numbers made it inevitable after voters made their choice.
Louth election candidate Emma Coffey, who lives in Dundalk and works as a solicitor in Drogheda, represents a new generation in Fianna Fáil, with a strong family background in the party.
Her great-grandfather, Timothy Patrick Coffey, was an election agent for former minister Frank Aiken, who represented the constituency for many years, while his wife and her great-grandmother, Mary, was the first woman Fianna Fáil chair of Louth county council.
“I cannot definitively rule out a coalition with Fine Gael,’’ she said. “Figures never lie and, if the voters decide that is what they want, it will have to be considered.’’
She said Fianna Fáil always had a huge sense of responsibility when it came to contributing to stability, the country’s welfare and economic recovery.
Coffey remarked that Fianna Fáil had formed a coalition with the Progressive Democrats, although it had been firmly ruled out at one stage.
The views of those opposed to a coalition were not based on Civil War politics but an insistence that the two parties had very different policies, with delegates arguing Fianna Fáil was much better at representing the less well-off.
Offaly delegates, Peter Kelly and Joe Gaffey from Tullamore, have been attending ardfheiseanna for decades.
Kelly (85) has been active in the party for close on 70 years, beginning his involvement when Eamon de Valera was leader.
He rated Seán Lemass its best leader, adding “he got things done’’. He felt property developers had too much influence on the party for a time. “They had no interest in anybody but themselves,’’ he added.
Ruling out a coalition with Fine Gael, he said Fianna Fáil had always taken care of people like small farmers and industrial workers, while Fine Gael represented the big farmers and the merchants.
Gaffey said Fianna Fáil was once very opposed to Fine Gael but that had changed.
“We would be personally friendly with people in Fine Gael nowadays, but I could not get my head around going into government with them,’’ he added.
“We always looked after the poor, while the big fellow in the big house was Fine Gael’s concern.’’
Josephine Ryan and her daughter, Siobhán, from Thurles, Co Tipperary, represented the new five-seat constituency where Fianna Fail currently has no seat in a one-time stronghold.
“We have a good chance of a seat in Tipperary; we have good candidates,’’ said Siobhán.
She said morale among Fianna Fáil activists was low following the last general election and attendances at meetings declined for a time.
“We are now getting more people, including young people, in recent times,’’ she added. She thought Martin was doing a good job and that he should stay on as leader if the party remained in opposition.
Asked about a possible coalition with Fine Gael, both laughed and shook their heads.
“No, I can’t see it happening,’’ said Siobhán. “Nor can I,’’ said Josephine.
Asked whether it would be agreed by a delegate conference, if the numbers made it inevitable, both said they did not know.
“It is a hard one to call,’’ said Siobhán. “It would depend on the circumstances.’’
Many delegates accepted it was likely the party would remain in opposition, although in increased numbers.
County councillor and former TD Tom McEllistrim, from Kerry, said he believed the party would increase its number of seats to the mid-30s. “It does look as if we will be in opposition and some other groups will form a government,’’ he said.
Kerry delegate Fionnán Fitzgerald, a member of the party’s national executive, said the Fianna Fail grassroots were ready for the election.
“While the economy is growing, people are unhappy with the Government for various reasons,’’ he said. “I think Fianna Fáil will gain electorally from that mood.’’