News Shane Coleman

Saturday 20 September 2014

Fianna Fail can now raise its glass to recovery from 2011

Published 26/05/2014 | 02:30

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Fianna Fail Dublin Mid west candidate David McGuinness  at the counts at City West Hotel, Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Fianna Fail Dublin Mid west candidate David McGuinness at the counts at City West Hotel, Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

Fianna Fail – glass half empty or glass half full after Friday's elections? It's possible to make the case either way.

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Half empty first: It ranks as the party's second worst electoral performance in its near 90-year history. Furthermore, despite the two government parties between them dropping 25 percentage points in support since the general election, Fianna Fail picked up less than seven points of that.

It did gain seats on local councils, but that's compared to a dreadful performance in 2009 and there were an extra 60 or so seats on offer. In the other contests – the two by-elections and the Euros, the party seriously underperformed.

Although he eventually finished second, David McGuinness's vote declined in Dublin West from the by-election two years ago. In the end, he was well beaten by the Socialist Party, while it was Sinn Fein that really made the breakthrough in the constituency.

In Longford-Westmeath, Aengus O'Rourke never came close to threatening Gabrielle McFadden. And, if the extraordinary vote harvesting capacity of Brian Crowley is discounted, Fianna Fail's Euro candidates struggled to make it to double digit support levels.

Half full? The benchmark for the party's vote shouldn't be the 2009 local elections – which took place before the bailout – but the general election of three years ago. Going from the carnage of 17pc then to 24pc or 25pc is really tangible evidence of progress. After 2011, many questioned if Fianna Fail had a future at all. Now suddenly the party is neck and neck with Fine Gael. Who would have predicted that even a week ago?

The party also made solid, if far from spectacular, progress in Dublin, particularly in leafier middle-class areas such as Castleknock, Clontarf, Stillorgan and Blackrock. The performance in other cities, especially Cork, was very encouraging. And there were strong showings in former strongholds such as Clare, Roscommon, Mayo and Kildare. The locals also seem to be have delivered a new generation of councillors capable of challenging for Dail seats in two years' time. Of course, it would have been nice to have taken a seat in either of the by-elections, but Longford-Westmeath was virtually unwinnable and the party seems very likely to win a seat in Dublin West at the general election.

Analysing the two arguments, it would seem on balance, Fianna Fail's cup is more half full. There are problems. Sinn Fein is on the rise (although in terms of support levels, Fianna Fail has succeeded in keeping it at arm's length).

Results in places such as Tallaght South and Dublin north inner city suggest working class urban areas – once a bedrock of FF support – have still not forgiven the party. It's far from unique to working-class communities. The better performance in middle-class wards seem to be candidate (Haughey, Hanafin, Feeney, etc), rather than party driven.

There is also discontent in the parliamentary party, and throughout the organisation at grassroots level, over what is perceived to be a very centralised leadership under Micheal Martin.

While that criticism may be justified, much of the grumbling and the blaming of FF HQ in relation to candidate selection and other issues has its origins in delusions of grandeur. There seem to be some in the party who believe Fianna Fail has a preordained right to be at 40pc-plus support. That the economic crash and the 2011 general election meltdown would be forgotten and the party could just pick up where it left off.

That's patently nonsense. Given the horror show of three years ago, 24-25pc is as good as Fianna Fail could reasonably hope for. It also copperfastens Martin's position as leader, despite the calls from John McGuinness over the weekend for a new direction.

The performance in the locals – by far the most important of Friday's contests – leaves the party reasonably well poised to make equally solid and unspectacular gains in the next general election. A lot can happen between now and then, but 40-plus seats in the next Dail looks a reasonable goal.

Baby steps perhaps for a party that boasts the best electoral record in Western Europe, but steps nonetheless. For that Fianna Fail diehards should be grateful.

SHANE COLEMAN PRESENTS 'THE SUNDAY SHOW' ON NEWSTALK 106-108FM.

Irish Independent Supplement

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