ANALYSIS: The most devastating defeat for a dominant party since 1918 means Micheál Martin must go back to FF's roots in the hope of resurrection
DURING THE 1992 general election, Seán Duignan, then working as the government press secretary, depicted the mood in Fianna Fáil as polling day drew close.
“I could see, talking to Fianna Fáil ministers,” he recalled, “that they already regarded themselves as primarily conducting a damage limitation exercise . . . personal survival would take precedence over all else. The air was thick with fear, frustration and fault-finding.”
After the votes had been counted, its worst fears were realised. In polling 39.1 per cent of first preference votes, the party had experienced its worst electoral result since September 1927, when it polled 35.2 per cent.
That dipping below 40 per cent of first preference votes was seen as historically disastrous for Fianna Fáil is a measure of the scale of the 2011 collapse. Whatever was involved in a “damage limitation exercise” in 1992 was nothing on the scale of the challenge in 2011, and whatever about Micheál Martin’s widely acknowledged communication skills, this election for Fianna Fáil was always about enduring revenge, crossing its fingers and hoping it would not get fewer than 30 seats.
It turned out to be worse than that; the change of leadership came too late and it was relatively clear during the campaign there was not going to be a late surge to the party. To lose to the extent it has represents defeat on a historic scale, with echoes of the seminal December 1918 general election, when Sinn Féin routed the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), winning 73 seats to the IPP’s 6 – down from 69 at the dissolution of parliament.
The context in 1918 was different. The electorate had been extended from 700,000 to two million and the election mobilised young people in a way not seen before. Many of them were invigorated by the lure of a new movement promising a radical change to Ireland’s status. But as in 2011, the 1918 vote was about punishing a tired old movement, arrogant from long-time electoral dominance.
The IPP’s leader since 1900, John Redmond, had died unexpectedly in March 1918 and was replaced by the tougher, more aggressive and forthright John Dillon, who conducted a frank exchange of correspondence with party stalwart TP O’Connor throughout the campaign.
That correspondence reveals how despondent Dillon was about lack of party organisation and a sense that, in his own words, his followers were already beaten “in their hearts”. He regarded those members of the party who backed away, having originally committed to stand, as demonstrating “sheer cowardice”, but he refused to fold up the party tent.
One of Dillon’s major gripes was that the younger generation “are ignorant of what our movement achieved for Ireland”. But he also acknowledged “our own blunders in not realising what was going on”.
One can see the parallels with Fianna Fáil in the 2011 election, but unlike Dillon, who lost his seat to Eamon de Valera in the East Mayo constituency by a margin of two to one, Martin survived. The IPP in 1918 did not have the benefit of proportional representation, but this is what has saved Fianna Fáil from extinction in 2011, and therein lies an irony, given Fianna Fáil’s attempts to abolish the PR system in 1959 and 1968 – moves that were rejected by the electorate.
Fine Gael, given its new status as by far the largest party, will celebrate the sense that its time has come. It may briefly enjoy a feeling of revenge, given the sniping it has been subjected to over the years by Fianna Fáil. Its political obituary was prepared many times from the 1940s to the early years of the 21st century, because of enduring doubts over its relevance, its lack of government experience and whether or not it had a coherent answer to the question of what it stands for.
Fianna Fáil has often unfairly used Fine Gael’s history as a stick with which to beat it, and its legacy of providing stability in the 1920s rarely received the recognition it deserved. In 1980, Fianna Fáil TD Patrick Power bellowed across the Dáil chamber that Fine Gael was “the party who sold out this country”; a convenient way of ignoring the crucial work it had done to ensure Fianna Fáil inherited a stable democratic state in 1932.
The longer Fianna Fáil was in power after 1932, the more vitriolic the references became to the record of Cumann na nGaedheal in the 1920s, as if somehow it lacked patriotism because of its decision to accept the Treaty and face down the IRA.
Fine Gael and Labour will now briefly bask in the afterglow of unprecedented electoral success. Eamon Gilmore will feel vindicated that his invoking of the insistence of James Connolly that “Labour does best when Labour stands alone” has paid dividends. But what now for the once mighty Fianna Fáil party?
Micheál Martin will focus on reconfiguring a small party, and is likely to dust down his copy of the party’s original aims as he embarks on, in his own words, “renewing Fianna Fáil at every level”. Expect much talk about a return to core republican aims and a party that will champion the vulnerable.
Fianna Fáil’s vote collapsed because it managed to alienate all sections of Irish society, beyond a hard core of loyalists. Almost all its candidates witnessed anger on the canvass because so many people are experiencing fear and uncertainty about issues that historically have caused much pain to the Irish, and which they hoped during the boom had been consigned to history – mass unemployment, emigration, dispossession and loss of control of national destiny.
That Fianna Fáil has always made control of that destiny an essential part of its rhetoric and appeal makes the magnitude of its defeat particularly notable, but its critics can argue with much justification that its self-serving pragmatism, another essential part of its identity, finally caught up with it. As the UCD historian Desmond Williams once observed, the party for many years was able effectively to manipulate voters by issuing “firm statements followed by intricate qualifications”.
The firm statements emanating from the party during the last Dáil about a viable survival plan, not involving outside intervention, were the most hollow ever, and during that period the intricate qualifications – giving a blanket guarantee of bank liabilities and ultimately opening the door to the International Monetary Fund and the European Union, effectively resulted in a loss of sovereignty.
These developments were perceived as amounting to the abandonment by the party of one of its core commitments at its foundation in 1926 – “to make the resources and wealth of Ireland subservient to the needs and welfare of the people of Ireland”.
The challenge of making Fianna Fáil relevant again, particularly as it will be sharing the opposition benches with others who claim to be much more devoted to egalitarianism and republicanism than it, is considerable.
If the party is looking for crumbs of comfort, it may find them in the realisation of the scale of the task now facing the new government. It could do worse than recall John Dillon’s observation after his party’s defeat in 1918. He suggested there could be a positive side to the election loss, as “the more the responsibility is fixed on the other side to deliver the goods and carry out the promises they have made, the better and more speedy will be their discomfiture and break-up”.
Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin