News Brendan O’Connor

Saturday 30 August 2014

Like it or not, FF is now our most popular party

It's time for Martin and Co to move on from being vaguely apologetic and really stand for something

Brendan O'Connor

Published 01/06/2014 | 02:30

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FF leader Micheal Martin and Taoiseach Enda Kenny
FF leader Micheal Martin and Taoiseach Enda Kenny
Fianna Fail's Lisa Chambers celebrates winning a seat at the count in Castlebar
Fianna Fail's Lisa Chambers celebrates winning a seat at the count in Castlebar
Fianna Fail candidate for Blackrock Mary Hanafin celebrates her win with her mother Mona Hanafin at the count in the City West Hotel, Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Fianna Fail candidate for Blackrock Mary Hanafin celebrates her win with her mother Mona Hanafin at the count in the City West Hotel, Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

Many people who commented on or made conclusions about the elections last week had clearly come to their conclusions before the elections ever happened. And once a consensus had been reached there was only one story. Labour had a meltdown, Gilmore had to go, Sinn Fein did amazingly well, watch out everyone else.

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And this was true to a point. But what was ignored in that consensus were other stories and other details that possibly didn't fit the consensus narrative. Labour did have a meltdown, but Fine Gael had a bit of one as well, dropping about a third of its vote since the last election. Sinn Fein did do well but not as well as everyone expected. And the big story, that really, really didn't fit anyone's accepted narrative, was that Fianna Fail had a good election.

I know. I know. Most of you don't want to think that or accept it. But I'm afraid it's true. Fianna Fail was the most popular party in the local elections, and indeed, if they managed their vote a bit better in the Europeans, they could have done OK-ish there as well. According to Friday's Irish Times, if these had been general elections Fianna Fail would have emerged with more seats than any other party.

You're wondering if you read that wrong, aren't you? Because if that was true, it should have been one of the major stories of this election. A party that people had decided should and would be wiped from the face of the earth three years ago, a party that people thought would be out in the cold for a generation at least, a party that was blamed for ruining the country and selling our children and our children's children into penury, not only enjoyed a significant bump in these elections but is in fact the most popular party in the country, if you accept the number of votes got and the number of seats won as a valid measure.

It makes you think. Imagine if Fianna Fail actually had an identity. Imagine if they actually stood for something or were about something other than being slightly apologetic and deballed. They would clean up. It is a sign, perhaps, of how desperate we are in this country.

The secret to Fianna Fail's surprising "landslide" in the local elections is probably a combination of things. Funnily enough, Fianna Fail probably benefited a lot from the protest vote against the Government. Indeed, the venality of Fianna Fail, with a bit of time passed and some Vaseline over the lens, almost looks innocent next to the current Government. And the current Government has the distinct disadvantage of being in power right now, so their shortcomings are foremost in our minds. So, as much as the current Government keeps telling us that it's Fianna Fail's fault that the current Government has to do all these awful things to us, eventually some things started to stick to the current Government.

The fact that there is an air of messiness around this Government, and an increasing air of Machiavelli around Enda Kenny, all helps to make Fianna Fail seem more palatable. And on austerity, the simple fact is that we do blame the current Government for that, even if it all goes back to the last Government. Indeed, even the fiscal responsibility that this Government is so proud of, that brought us back from the brink, dates back to Fianna Fail, it being their five-year plan originally.

The other reason that Fianna Fail got an unlikely share of the protest vote is because for many sensible people, the other outlets for their protest votes would have been unpalatable. Despite the impression given by the media, a massive majority of people in this country would never consider voting for Sinn Fein and never will.

While all of us, Sinn Fein included, can get our knickers in a twist about them breaking into new ground in these elections, we should not forget that no matter how disenchanted most Irish people get with the Government of the time, they will never, as a fundamental principle, vote for the current incarnation of Sinn Fein. In terms of other protest options, as much as a lot of people feel they make their point effectively by voting for a smaller party or an Independent, a lot of people can tend to feel that that is a waste of their vote.

So perhaps, as much as people said they would never vote for Fianna Fail again, when it came down to it, if you wanted to vote against the Government but you wanted to exercise your vote in a "sensible" and conservative fashion, you found yourself gravitating towards Fianna Fail. But if Fianna Fail wishes to benefit from this accidental forgiveness, the last thing they should do now is start considering coalition with Sinn Fein, which has been mooted by an unnamed senior TD, according to the Irish Independent. If you are getting forgiveness through the back door from an 'anyone but Sinn Fein' vote, then it would be insane to start talking about allying with Sinn Fein.

Funnily enough it seems to be the old guard of Fianna Fail who understand this, maybe because they've been around long enough to see what happens to moderate parties who play footsie with Sinn Fein. Clearly, neither Micheal Martin nor Willie O'Dea wishes to be the new SDLP.

O'Dea says he would be very uncomfortable with the notion of coalition with Sinn Fein, while Martin's spokesman was even more categorical. He said Fianna Fail's focus on the economy and job creation would be incompatible with Sinn Fein's relentless high tax agenda, which would serve only to jeopardise jobs and discourage foreign investment.

Martin's statement on the matter almost threatens to look like Fianna Fail actually standing for something. Fianna Fail have been too timid to have any real identity beyond contrition for the last three years and Martin has often come across as a kind of bland interregnum manager type rather than a leader. It is time now for Fianna Fail to move on from the apologetic and shamefaced phase and show some balls. As the largest party in the country with more support right now than the largest party in Government, Fianna Fail needs to stop indulging itself and re-engage with the politics of the day.

Indeed the Government, unless they wish to give a further free ride to Sinn Fein, also needs to stop slapping Fianna Fail down and blaming them for everything every time Fianna Fail tries to speak out. Sometimes you have to have a hierarchy of your enemies, and Fine Gael needs to get their one straight. The new enemy could be a bigger threat to this country than the old enemy.

It may seem that this new phase for Fianna Fail might require a new leader, someone like John McGuinness, who has a solid track record of internal opposition to the last Fianna Fail Government and who appears to stand for a few things. But Martin's rejection of Sinn Fein, on solid ideological and economic grounds, suggests there may be life in the old dog yet.

Martin has also identified and set the ball rolling on the real question facing Sinn Fein now, which is not, no matter how much we think it should be, the past or Gerry Adams. The issue now is if Sinn Fein is fit to run this country in a boring, workaday way. Do they have economic policies apart from being vaguely anti-austerity, which even the Government is now? (See Joan Burton's reiteration of her anti-austerity credentials during the week.)

If Fianna Fail starts asking those questions and starts putting up their own answers, without feeling hogtied by the shame of the past, then the surprise for the political consensus in the next election may not be the Sinn Fein surge but the Fianna Fail one. It's a funny old game really.

Sunday Independent

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