Friday 22 September 2017

Why Fianna Fail must move to centre-right

If FF dithers, Sinn Fein will overtake it on the left and a new party will emerge on the right, says Gavin Duffy

History was made. Sinn Fein fully exploited its publicity coup. For the British media, that handshake between their Queen and the man they all described as "the former IRA commander" Martin McGuinness, was the major event of the week. It even overshadowed the latest effort -- yet another EU summit -- to save the euro.

What is evident from a week that saw Sinn Fein centre-stage, receiving global media attention, is that it has totally wiped out the SDLP in the North. Here's a question: name the current SDLP leader? Yes, we all remember the great John Hume. Before him you may remember Gerry Fitt, and after Mr Hume perhaps Mark Durkan, but who is the leader today? If nobody knows the name of Alasdair McDonnell then it means the party is now irrelevant and close to extinction.

Likewise, if I were to ask you to name the last leader of the Progressive Democrats, most of us would struggle.

By 2021, the centenary of our nation's independence -- two general elections from now -- unless Fianna Fail wakes up, none of us will know the name of its then leader. The party will be irrelevant and facing extinction. Sinn Fein, the republican socialist party, will have wiped out Fianna Fail, the republican party.

By the next election, in 2016 -- the centenary of the Easter Rising -- Labour, currently playing mudguard to Fine Gael in coalition, will most likely suffer the fate of all junior coalition partners and see its representation halved, at least.

If Micheal Martin allows Fianna Fail to merely stumble on, the party could be all but eradicated. Sinn Fein will be an even larger political force, choosing to go into, or stay out of, government.

Men and women who have lived and died for their cause on a blanket, or lay in a ditch eyeing up their "enemy" through a telescopic lens, are persistent -- but above all -- patient.

Don't be surprised if Sinn Fein does not rush to embrace the power, pay, perks and pensions of coalition ministerial office after the next election. Should it stay out of government and be the real opposition for a second term, Fianna Fail will wither and die.

So what should the party do if it is to give itself any chance of surviving? As I am no politician and come to this from a purely brand-positioning perspective, bear with me if I see voters -- you and I -- as potential customers, and Fianna Fail's policies as the product. Here is my plan.

The first thing Fianna Fail must do is accept it is in a 'Doc Marten' position. In the Sixties, every other British blue-collar worker wore Dr Martens, the army-style boots. Two decades later, there were millions fewer working in industrial jobs and its sales crashed.

By accepting it was never going to regain the total market, Dr Martens targeted a profitable segment and enjoyed a meteoric revival. It became a highly successful fashion item for young men and women.

Fianna Fail must accept its days as a catch-all, super party are long gone. It must boldly target where its new potential customers are to be found. Its most readily available potential customers are centre-right voters.

Let Sinn Fein arm-wrestle Labour for the left. By claiming the centre-right, the party can push Fine Gael farther right, forcing Enda Kenny's party to be seen solely as the peddlers of austerity. But if Fianna Fail dithers, this gap in the market will be filled by some new political party.

Secondly, Fianna Fail must first think small before it can think big again. Why? Because it is small.

The party needs to wake up to its new reality. Shockingly, there are now large tracts of the country and millions of voters without a Fianna Fail TD.

Thirdly, always remember, people don't forget. The current Fianna Fail brand is toxic. It needs to rebrand, redirect and regenerate itself.

When Peter Mandelson came up with the brand 'New Labour' in Britain he was criticised for silly, pointless tinkering. But 'New' Labour meant it was different and distinct from the 'old' Labour party.

Fianna Fail has to make a new beginning by closing the door firmly on its past.

Fourthly, the party's regeneration cannot wait. If it is to have any chance of recovering, it must have a strong local election result next year, halting its downward slide.

Then, on the back of that, it must win a minimum of 40 seats at the next general election. Any brand or product must have a critical mass if it is to stay afloat in business. Anything less than one TD in every constituency would be a death knell for the party.

Sunday Independent

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