Over recent weeks, despite the happy distraction of the St Patrick’s Day festivities and the Easter break, Insider has detected a sense of worry in people’s demeanour created by a largely unexpected development that has truly shaken them out of any complacency.
People nervously turn the pages of newspapers, scarcely believing what they are reading. The scale of the uncertainty has clearly unnerved them, they fear for their economic well-being and even for the safety of their savings.
“Could it happen here?” they wonder. Initially it was only paper talk and speculation but now there are hard facts and “Well, if it can happen in a small corner of Meath it can happen here.” Yes, incredibly Fianna Fáil could be back in Government!
We never thought it could happen
Two years ago, this did not look likely. FF had taken the biggest pounding ever by an Irish political party and a beating up there with some of the most spectacular inflicted on any party in the western world. Arguably only the use of multi-seat constituencies and PR saved FF from a defeat on the scale suffered by the Irish Parliamentary Party in 1918 or the Canadian Tories in 1993.
FF also found themselves without a TD in 25 of the 43 constituencies and were not only without any representation in Dublin following Brian Lenihan’s death but were also wiped out in Tipperary, Kerry, Sligo, Leitrim, and Meath; places where such an outcome would have been unthinkable a few years earlier. The age profile of the parliamentary party returned to the 31st Dáil was not particularly favourable, nor was the gender profile with no female TDs elected. The newly depleted party was led by Micheál Martin, a leading lieutenant of discredited taoisigh Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen.
It seemed reasonable to assume that the future looked neither bright nor green. So, what has happened?
Despite the poor prognosis, there were some straws for FF to cling to. First of all, the party did manage to find itself in the role of largest opposition party, which confers significant benefits – for example media coverage being given the role of representing the opposition in the Primetime debate with the Minister for Finance on Budget night and having a more prominent speaking position in the Dáil.
Also, despite the fact that the economy was already in freefall, Fianna Fáil managed a 25 per cent vote share in the 2009 Local Elections, before the party fell away further late in 2010 when things disintegrated and IMF arrived.
Incredibly, the fall of 25 per cent in the FF vote between the general elections of 2007 and 2011 made the ‘lapsed FFers’ the second largest group in the electorate, a level of support broadly equivalent to FG’s vote in recent elections prior to 2011. So could the party tempt some of these people back into the fold?
Initially, FF focused on internal matters. Party members essentially reviewed what had gone wrong and the state the party was in amongst themselves. It looked at putting in place new party structures, reforming candidate selection, and putting in place local area representatives in places which no longer had FF representation. All of this culminated in the Ard Fheis of 2012, a key event for the party.
While much commentary focused on the irony of FF sharing the RDS venue with an overseas jobs fair that weekend, the most notable thing to emerge was the large number of delegates, a sign FF still had significant numbers of foot soldiers willing to stay loyal and involved - at least for the time being. Mr Martin’s first task was to retain these people.
The next step:
Engaging the general public
Talking and debating among themselves is not a long term strategy for recovery however, so the next step was to engage the general public. This was initially done at a very basic level.
Insider recalls being told by a party supporter from County Meath in late 2011 that it was noticeable how FF councillors were incredibly eager to get involved in local issues and were very prominent on the ground.
He wondered if this was a strategy by FF to maintain a foothold in the community - particularly among its remaining and maybe recently lapsed supporters - and to regain some sort of goodwill from the people. This is also strategy long favoured by the Liberal Democrats (who are in the same European grouping as FF ).
Such was the scale of the wipe-out that FF suffered in recent years that the party did not even have councillors, never mind TDs, in some parts of the country, so the appointment of local area representatives in such areas kept the FF brand alive and proved another key decision. Ultimately these individuals will be expected to contest the Local Elections next year and return some FF representation.
The party generally kept a low profile in the Dáil. It was broadly supportive of Government policy, notably on the economy (did it really have any choice given the history of the economic crisis? ) with any criticism focusing on its implementation. Since last summer however FF has started to become more vocal in the Dáil and clearly feels the next step is to become more engaged in national debates again.
FF: A party of the centre
Some of FF’s recent statements – notably the opposition to the timing of the implementation of property taxes and water charges, which were negotiated by Fianna Fáil – have borne the hallmarks of attempts at stand-up comedy.
Some Government figures – notably on the FG side – are smarting at FF’s brass neck.
Insider would offer the Government some encouragement, and would caution FF, that this is not a sustainable position. A public that is very wary of FF, and feels the party should lie prostrate before it even begins to beg for forgiveness, before getting its support again, will turn very cynical about the party if it continues along those lines.
FF however has also concluded that it cannot really compete with any credibility with Sinn Féin and Independents for the disaffected vote. Whatever about cheekily opposing (sort of ) some of the individual measures, it is just not sustainable for FF, with its history, to seek the votes of that section of the public that opposes the genesis of the policy being pursued by the Government.
Ultimately FF’s strategy has to be to remain on the centre ground and hope that on the one hand, the policy strategy being implemented by the Government (and essentially backed by FF ) does not become discredited, but on the other hand, hope that it can somehow present itself as more credible than the Government parties in implementing it. This is a fine balancing act but probably FF’s best hope.
The future: what can FF hope for?
In recent weeks, there has been much analysis of crisis in Government (notably Labour ) and of FF resurgence, leading to speculation about Government formation with some speculating FF may even find itself in coalition with long-term adversaries FG in 2016!
Nothing can ever be discounted as political developments in recent years have illustrated but this speculation is premature and some of the analysis almost hysterical. As former minister Mary Hanafin said recently, if the public got a whiff of FF getting back to government soon the FF vote would quickly plummet.
What FF has managed, is to establish itself as the main opposition party and to at least have the people prepared to have a look at voting for the party. The strong performance in the Meath East by-election will encourage it too in this regard – of course too much should not be read into by-elections but for FF to win 33 per cent of the vote would be seen as a sign that FF is not totally off-limits for a sizeable portion of the electorate.
FF’s next aim will be relatively modest. They will be looking to translate recent improvements in poll numbers into real votes in a nationwide election. The 2014 Local Elections offers that opportunity.
A 25 per cent vote share would be satisfactory for the party. First, it would match the 2009 performance, indicating some of the votes lost in 2010/2011 are being regained; secondly, if it can maintain this into a general election, it would broadly see FF win a seat in every constituency.
Could it happen here?
Finally we return to the question posed by those nervous newspaper readers at the outset - could FF have a resurgence in Galway? Well, in the medium term Insider would see Galway West (where the party vote was notably above the national average in 2011 ) as a likely target for FF to pick up a second seat. It needs however to pick up a strong vote across the constituency in the local elections – in particular in the Oranmore ward where the party has largely evaporated in recent years – and also to produce a clear running mate for Éamon Ó Cuív.
In Galway East, with the seats being reduced from four to three, the prospect of a gain looks a longshot – however FF has been haemorrhaging support in the constituency in local elections in recent years and would at least like to rebuild its council representation.
Ultimately though in Galway, as is the case nationwide, there is a long way to go. Polls are fickle and so far the only solid message is that part of the public is willing to have another look at FF and a modest and gradual recovery may be possible. The 2014 Local Elections will tell us a lot more.