Summary: Fianna Fáil general election report reveals where party went wrong

Lack of identity emerges as one of the most worrying issues for party to deal with

Fianna Fáil Leader Micheál Martin at the party’s opening press conference of general election 2020. Photograph: Fran Veale

Fianna Fáil Leader Micheál Martin at the party’s opening press conference of general election 2020. Photograph: Fran Veale

 

The review of Fianna Fáil’s general election performance in 2020 – in which it saw support fall and anticipated gains turn into seat losses – was broken down under ten headings. Under each were findings critical of the party’s campaign, performance, strategy and execution.

It also found there were things the party did well, but the focus when TDs discuss its findings at the Slieve Russell Hotel in Co Cavan this afternoon will be on the negative aspects. The principal findings are summarised below.

Management of election campaign at national level

The national director of elections was appointed too late, just on the eve of the election campaign. This was symptomatic of insufficient preparation for the campaign, which surfaced repeatedly in several respects. The structures for running the campaign – there was no oversight of those who were running the campaign on a daily and hourly basis – were flawed, and should be changed for the next campaign, the report finds, with the establishment of a permanent election committee, timely preparation of manifesto, policies, constituency strategies and communications.

Party identity

This is one of the most worrying aspects of the report from Fianna Fáil’s perspective. Even a majority of its own members are “unclear about our distinct identity”, it finds. The report suggests a variety of reasons for this – confidence and supply, the financial crisis, the changes in Northern Ireland, declining loyalty among voters in general – but its conclusions are stark. “The party is predominantly rural and highly reliant on its decreasing core base in defining itself ... Fianna Fáil has a low support base in urban areas and also with younger people.”

Candidates

The performance across the country was, as always, a mixed bag. There were complaints from members and TDs about strategy, though as the report notes, “these comments are common to most if not all political parties”.

But the report identifies two pressing needs – to attract more young candidates, and more women candidates. The gender quota for the proportion of women candidates required rises in 2023 from 30 per cent to 40 per cent. The report notes: “If, for example, we run the same number of candidates (84) in the next general election as in 2020 we will be required to run a minimum of 34 female candidates. On the basis that all current TDs run again (32 male and 5 female) there will have to be a minimum of 29 additional female candidates. This will represent 62 per cent of the 47 additional candidates.”

Performance of party leadership, frontbench and parliamentary party

“In general, there were mixed views of the party’s leadership and frontbench,” the report notes diplomatically. However, it is clear that the party members and TDs believe that it spent too much time attacking Sinn Féin. “There was criticism of the leadership for overly focusing on another party during the campaign. Justification for this approach was provided, but some members felt the strategy was negative and backfired,” it says.

But there were also other issues raised. Abstaining on the vote of confidence in then housing minister Eoghan Murphy in December 2019, just two months before the general election, “pushed us closer to the Government’s poor housing record and damaged the party’s message that we represented change in the 2020 general election,” it finds. In addition, the “votegate” controversy, which led to the suspensions of frontbenchers Niall Collins and Timmy Dooley also damaged the party.

It also levels criticism at TDs for leaking the proceedings at the weekly parliamentary party meetings, often featuring criticism of the party leader. “There has been a long trend of leaks from the parliamentary party. These leaks are amplified in the media and are damaging to the party. This creates an impression of a fragmented party and stifles meaningful debate at parliamentary party meetings,” it says. “The party should deal with and take appropriate action in respect of leaks from Parliamentary Party meetings.”

Party policies and manifesto

The manifesto, the report finds, was “conservative and cautious”, and “fully costed with reference to data from the Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure”. This approach, however, meant that the party’s “policies lacked fresh imagination, was overly cautious and did not capture the imagination of the public”. The pensions issue, it says, “was unexpected and not handled well.” It says a draft manifesto should always be in place.

National and local media performance

There was significant criticism of the party’s media performance. “The numerous set pieces from the national press centre, while functional, looked staid and lacked imagination,” it found. Reusing the 2016 slogan, An Ireland for All, “gave a tired appearance to the campaign and manifesto”.

The overall message “appeared complacent,” it said. “The party’s strategy was focused on Fianna Fáil representing change and replacing the outgoing government. The party did not fully anticipate that many members of the public did not agree with our assumption that we represented change.”

Social media performance

This was even worse. “The performance of the party on social media was the weakest aspect of our campaign both at national and local level,” it finds. There was little or no presence on platforms such as TikTok and Instagram, while the money spent on Facebook advertising yielded little return. The party needs to train its members, invest in infrastructure and generally reimagine its social media presence. It recommends that members of Ógra, the party’s youth wing, should play a central role in this.

Campaign at constituency level

Here the story was different with “very positive feedback on the election campaign at local level”. However, it also identifies a serious issue for the party – “Fianna Fáil is highly reliant on candidate-based voting rather than party-based voting.” While the performance of local candidates was energetic and productive, the weakening of the party identity and organisation – as opposed to the candidate’s organisation – is something that is storing up trouble for the future.

Role of headquarters

All political parties tend to complain about “headquarters” but the report notes that “the evidence given by interviewees and the survey respondents indicated both positive and negative interaction with headquarters before the campaign”. The positives focussed on “the functional areas of planning, organising, supporting candidates and directors of elections during the campaign”.

However, it also finds that “headquarters’ strategy for the 2020 general election was based on previous campaigns with no real innovation or improvement.” There was insufficient use of focus groups to “understand the sentiment of the public towards the party”; “The party must always be election ready”. It should “seek out the best international experience” and “ensure there is sufficient investment in communications technology”.

Profile of membership and activity levels

The findings under this heading tended to reinforce those elsewhere – while the party “is large and has a strong presence in rural Ireland”, it needs to work harder to attract women and young people. It also suggests that there should be a examination of the structure of the party, in particular the basis building block of the organisation – the cumann.

“The effectiveness and role of the cumann should be reviewed, in particular where there are not sufficient members in a cumann. The idea of joint meetings and amalgamation between neighbouring cumainn should be actively examined to ensure there is a level of synergy in the organisation at local level,” it says.

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