Wednesday 21 March 2018

'FG got more arrogant in four weeks than we did in four years'

Fianna Fail listened to the people as its rivals predicted its demise, write Philip Ryan and Maeve Sheehan

Back in business: Micheal Martin and his team of Fianna Fail TDs at Leinster House last week as they arrived for the first sitting of the new Dail. Photo: Niall Carson
Back in business: Micheal Martin and his team of Fianna Fail TDs at Leinster House last week as they arrived for the first sitting of the new Dail. Photo: Niall Carson

Philip Ryan and Maeve Sheehan

Michael Moynihan took a sheet of plain white paper and scribbled on it: "Fianna Fail, 41 seats."

He wrote the date - April 29, 2015 - signed his name and slipped the sheet into an equally plain white envelope. He gave it to a close friend for safe keeping until after the election.

Colleagues describe Moynihan as a "man who listens more than talks". True to form, he kept his prediction to himself. He thought people would baulk at it.

When the General Election kicked off, he didn't feel the need to go on radio and argue with broadcasters and political commentators who, he says, "wouldn't know their arse from their elbow".

But the five-term Cork North West TD who, as chair of Fianna Fail's constituency committee, was central to the party's election planning, preferred to operate below the radar of the commentariat.

He spent the last three years doing laps of the country in his car, meeting TDs, councillors and grassroots members where a story about a brash young Fine Gael TD was often told.

Weeks into the coalition Government in 2011, the first-time TD approached Moynihan and his colleague, Dara Calleary in the Dail bar.

He bragged that Fine Gael's election victory signalled the end of Fianna Fail. Members would now abandon the party en masse.

The "respectful element" would join Fine Gael and the "rougher types" would sign up to Sinn Fein.

The Fine Gael TD has lost his seat but his story, recounted in pubs and town hall meetings across the country, only served to bolster the very party he intended to do down.

"They became more arrogant in four weeks than we did in four years," a senior Fianna Fail figure said.

People like Michael Moynihan helped Fianna Fail win 44 seats in the General Election. However, Fianna Fail's achievement was five years in the making.

From the ashes of electoral disaster in 2011, Micheal Martin, his five-strong inner sanctum and his quietly loyal deputies began the process of rebuilding the party, passing on the presidential election, going hell for leather for the locals in 2014.

Despite being consigned to non-existence by its political revivals, things were looking good for Fianna Fail on the ground.

People were having a bad time of it, especially in rural areas, but the venomous anger trained on Fianna Fail in the 2011 General Election was no longer there.

"From Bantry to Donegal and everywhere in between, candidates were saying they were getting a great response but no one believed them," Moynihan said.

But Martin was having a hard time of it too.

TDs were stamping their feet at parliamentary party meetings, insisting that not enough was being done by Martin to bring the soldiers of destiny back to the frontline of national politics.

Agitators were making no secret of their disquiet with Martin, who was regularly forced to deny that his leadership of the party was under threat.

The opinion polls didn't help. Fianna Fail wasn't really moving far from the 17pc it held in the party's worst general election in modern history.

Bertie Ahern, the former taoiseach, and Mary Hanafin, the former minister who lost her seat and was trying to stage a comeback, also made life difficult for Micheal Martin, sniping from the sidelines.

The grassroots didn't care.

A senior Fianna Fail source said: "I asked a seasoned campaigner in a rural constituency if the Hanafin debacle would have any impact on the election. And he looked at me and said, 'That's all going on in Dublin, what do we care about all that?'"

Fianna Fail cleaned up in the locals, becoming the biggest party in local government and found itself an array of willing candidates who actually wanted to run for a party that only a couple of years earlier had been considered toxic.

It was time. In September of that year, Micheal Martin called a meeting of his most trusted lieutenants in Rochestown Park Hotel in Douglas, Cork. It was time to look to the nationals.

Moynihan was there, as was Martin's long-time adviser, Deirdre Gillane, Fianna Fail general secretary Sean Dorgan, the assistant general secretary, Darragh McShea and the party's head of communications, Pat McParland.

Despite the magnitude of the task at hand, they were a tight-knit and secretive group.

"We could trust no one. If someone sneezed wrong, it was on the front page of the newspapers and there was suddenly a crisis in Fianna Fail," a source said.

They mulled over every constituency in the country. The pros and cons of each candidate were thrashed out and preliminary decisions were made.

Over the following months, town hall meetings were held around the country in conjunction with regular Fianna Fail cumann gatherings.

Martin, who prides himself on being a man with an ear to the ground, was out there with them.

"Since the locals, Micheal has been out two or three times a week with the representatives. He would come back and say, 'People aren't feeling the recovery,'" said one source.

Out of that, came the 'Ireland for All' slogan that was to be Fianna Fail's pitch to the electorate.

Research confirmed what the party was on the right track: it showed that people wanted better public services, not necessarily tax cuts, and it also threw up that fact that people didn't believe a change of government equalled "chaos".

Last September, Sean Dorgan presented it to the parliamentary party in Leinster House.

When the election was called two months ago, Fianna Fail had done its homework. The slogan was in the bag, the campaign posters were in storage and the candidates strained at the bit.

Nothing prepared the party's inner circle for what one observer called the slow-mo, low-impact 'minor collision' that Fine Gael's campaign turned out to be.

Fianna Fail's campaign headquarters was a couple of rooms on the fourth floor of a building on Mount Street with a big television screen. The campaign foot soldiers were mostly twenty-somethings who knew how to work social media.

Billy Kelleher was appointed director of elections after Pat Carey decided to step aside.

Peter McDonagh, another veteran of the Ahern era, returned to Dublin for the campaign from the Czech Republic, where he lives with his family. Hence the nickname "child of Prague".

For the 21 days of the campaign, Martin's core team met each morning at 8am and again at 7pm.

The meetings lasted 45 minutes "max", said one insider. Martin McMackin, PR director and former Fianna Fail general secretary, was brought in to chair them.

There were no blow-ups, one strategist claimed. They were all on the same page.

"You don't need big, long meetings. They were very aware of what was going on. They just had to make any decisions that were needed and get on with it," he said.

Fianna Fail embarked on a "steady as she goes" campaign that followed a slight upward incline. Martin performed well in the debates. The polls didn't inspire but nor did they spark hysteria.

The team was becoming quietly more confident. On the last Saturday of the General Election campaign, the ping of texts rang out within Micheal Martin's inner circle.

Enda Kenny had just delivered Micheal Martin's team one of the highs of its election campaign when he stood on a platform in Castlebar and condemned the local "whingers".

"We couldn't believe he said it. Then the next day, we couldn't believe that he said he wasn't going to apologise for saying it," said one insider.

Seven days later, they watched on in near disbelief as returning officers stood up in cattle marts and town halls to announce the names of the successful Fianna Fail candidates. The final count had them at 44 seats, six off Fine Gael.

It was unimaginable and even gave Fianna Fail the upper hand ahead of government negotiations.

Last Thursday as TDs bustled into Leinster House for the beginning of the new Dail term, Moynihan and his pal opened the envelope that had been sealed almost a year earlier and took out the note inside.

"Fianna Fail, 41 seats," stared back him.

An underestimation, as it turned out. But he was proud of the prediction, nonetheless.

On Thursday night, after 10 hours of Dail pantomime of not voting in the next Taoiseach, Moynihan got into his car to make the three-hour drive back to his home in Mallow.

The next morning, many of his colleagues back in the Big Smoke nursed hangovers from the "first-day-back drinks the night before in Leinster House.

Moynihan got up to do the school run. Then it was back to constituency duties and planning for the next election.

Sunday Independent

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