Thursday 18 December 2014

Old guard's return forces Fianna Fail to reflect on some uncomfortable home truths

Published 20/05/2014 | 02:30

FIONA O'Loughlin is a very unlikely Fianna Fail rebel. But the usually loyal Kildare Fianna Fail councillor's outspoken comments reflect a lingering annoyance within and outside Fianna Fail – despite the progress made since Micheal Martin took over as leader in January 2011. Ms O'Loughlin's objections to the return of another FF veteran, Sean Power, and the manner in which it was handled by party headquarters, raise uncomfortable truths for the party.

Almost 40 months since the party was given an electoral drubbing even bigger than that given the Irish Parliamentary Party in 1918, Fianna Fail remains largely unforgiven.

Fairly or unfairly, Fianna Fail's 14-year stint in power under Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen is associated with the country's financial disaster, which is still dogging the Irish people.

Martin's efforts to shrive the party and renew its popular republican roots have met with only limited success.

The return of figures from its past – notably Mary Hanafin and also Sean Power – has not helped.

Photographs of Cowen out on the weekend hustings probably help the party effort in Offaly but they are at best a mixed blessing nationally.

This time next week, there may well be questions about the future of Martin himself as FF leader. He was, after all, an Ahern loyalist and key lieutenant from January 1995 until Ahern's departure as Taoiseach and party leader in May 2008.

Martin quit the FF government on January 18, 2011, five weeks before the fateful general election meltdown.

Over the years before that he was by turns Minister for Foreign Affairs, Enterprise, Health and Education. It is difficult for Mr Martin not to be seen as other than a member of the "old guard of Fianna Fail".

Yesterday, this newspaper published details of a Millward Brown poll, which showed that the return of Fianna Fail's old guard risked provoking a voter backlash.

More than one in three voters said they were less likely to vote Fianna Fail if former ministers were brought back.

More generally, the party has recovered from its disastrous 17pc vote share in February 2011 but very slowly, with one step forward and half a step back.

The Irish Independent/ Millward Brown poll has it on 21pc – some others give it a point or two more.

Apologists have argued that this is a one-quarter increase on the general election performance. But that is pretty hollow.

A more realistic assessment of progress into the future, delivered by senior party sources at the outset of these election campaigns, was a hoped-for national rating of over 25pc.

That would leave Fianna Fail back where it was in the last local elections in June 2009, which at the time was rated as a very bad outcome, but on Friday next might be argued for as a reasonable result.

Ms O'Loughlin's criticisms also focus on the party's failures to attract enough women candidates with a mere 17pc nationally despite a target of 33pc.

Kildare has just three women standing for FF, while in counties Louth and Meath there are no women whatsoever, and in other counties the ratio of female candidates is below 10pc.

The party is also struggling in Dublin, where it has no TD since the death of Brian Lenihan Jnr in May 2011.

Recent opinion polls put its ranking in the low teens, a ranking that has attracted some derogatory comments from even the "FF old guard". Ironically, much now depends on the fate of its only woman candidate, Mary Fitzpatrick.

Unsurprisingly, Fianna Fail HQ contests Ms O'Loughlin's arguments. It says that Kildare County Council is expanding from 25 to 40 councillors and this offers opportunities.

A party spokesman said that FF already had two good women councillors in nine-seat Kildare/Newbridge, and Sean Power was added to strengthen the party ticket without damaging either incumbent.

Nobody in FF dares argue about the failure to attract more women candidates. But they do try to argue for points in getting in new faces with up to 40pc first-timers, while fewer than 2pc of candidates are former TDs.

How much any of this can help Fianna Fail come Friday remains to be seen.

Irish Independent

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