Martin bolsters FF's capacity to recover


Fianna Fáil won’t come near winning the election, but a meltdown can be avoided

THE DECKS are now cleared for the general election. The emergence of Fianna Fáil’s new leader, Micheál Martin, and the publication tonight of the first pre-election polls based on research carried out since that event, will provide a benchmark for the campaign.

The poll’s initial figures for party support will, of course, be the net result of two countervailing factors, the respective roles of which we will not be able to distinguish. These are the negative impact of Fianna Fáil’s effective collapse earlier this week, and the contrasting positive impact – and I am sure the effect will have been positive – of the election of a new leader.

It is difficult to judge whether Brian Lenihan would have made more or less impact than Martin upon public perception of Fianna Fáil. But it is clear that within the party this consideration carried little weight, for two other factors clearly influenced many TDs.

First of all, many seem to have been angered at what they perceived as Lenihan’s ambiguity about Brian Cowen. Secondly, many rural TDs seem also to have been reluctant to confide the party’s future to one or other of two candidates from major urban areas – thus leading them to vote for Éamon Ó Cuív.

It may seem odd that such considerations would have loomed larger in the minds of many TDs than the issue of which of the candidates would attract most public support. However, I do not find this surprising. When I was in politics I was often struck by the extent to which male TDs were sometimes influenced more by emotion than by a rational assessment of issues.

In the early 1980s, with the assistance of my national organiser Peter Prendergast, I succeeded in adding 14 women to the previously almost totally male-dominated Fine Gael Oireachtas party. Thereafter I was struck by the common sense of these new women members, which often contrasted with a less rational approach on the part of many male members.

(Moreover, in 2000, after I had left politics, I went, together with Fianna Fáil minister Noel Dempsey, to an Oireachtas committee to propose a change in our electoral system which I could demonstrate would have eliminated the loss of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael seats to members of their own parties at election times – thus reducing the overall rate of attrition by two-thirds in the case of Fianna Fáil. I was greatly struck by the extent to which emotional attachment to the existing electoral system by that predominantly male group of politicians led them to reject a change that would have been clearly beneficial to themselves.)

In recent articles I have suggested that it might be a mistake to write off Fianna Fáil’s capacity to recover some ground in this election. I am now reinforced in this belief.

First of all I am convinced that the polls have recently been underestimating Fianna Fáil support – because in the present hostile atmosphere some party loyalists must be reluctant to admit to pollsters that they intend to vote for Fianna Fáil candidates.

Next, the apparent risk of a Fianna Fáil meltdown may energise at least as many party activists as it may discourage. Moreover, the post-1980s breakdown of the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael party structures in many constituencies, and their replacement by individual candidate campaigns, could work in favour of Fianna Fáil. Activists will push the claims of the individual candidate and the party’s name will appear in very small type – if it features at all!

Finally, at national level, Martin clearly intends to cash in on his undoubted debating skills – which were most notably displayed in the Lisbon Treaty referendum campaign. On that occasion he alone among Fianna Fáil ministers showed a capacity to challenge effectively the many anti-Lisbon campaigners – successfully refuting the many claims they were making about the effects of that treaty.

In this election campaign we can expect him to attack Labour’s rather shaky case against some of the bailout terms. And his proposal to confine the debates to party leaders would deprive Fine Gael of a formidable weapon – Michael Noonan.

Martin will challenge both parties on their apparent policy differences as between spending cuts or tax increases and, to a lesser extent, on the issue of selling off State enterprises.

For two reasons these issues may prove in practice to be less of a problem than may appear. First of all both parties are necessarily open to compromise: in order to form a government, they will have to agree such a compromise. Secondly, for them to find the required €9 billion over the next three years – to which both parties are unambiguously committed – they will in practice have little room for ideological debate. They will be forced to draw heavily on every possible element of both in order to meet this target.

The problem for the two Opposition parties is how to explain all this to the electorate – seeking during the campaign to highlight differences between them, while at the same time convincing voters that after it is over they can produce a united government.

Nevertheless, even the most brilliant campaign that Martin can devise seems unlikely to bring Fianna Fáil’s vote much above 20 per cent. And, even allowing for a possible strong showing by Sinn Féin, and the election of some Independents, Fine Gael and Labour seem unlikely to see their potential large majority being seriously eroded.

Next week I shall look again at the implications of this weekend’s poll for the parties in the election.