Monday 18 December 2017

Soldiers are destined for the sidelines

Fine Gael has failed to capitalise fully on the momentous demise of Fianna Fail, says Jody Corcoran

When Phil Hogan asked the "decent" people of Fianna Fail to "loan" their vote to Fine Gael, implicit in the request was that these people would eventually take back their vote and give it to the Fianna Fail family again.

While it would be foolish to second guess Big Phil, I would say that he, too, may have failed to grasp the scale of yesterday's events, if he really believes that all of these people are going to return, willy nilly, to Fianna Fail any time soon.

Perhaps "family" is not strictly the proper term, not encompassing enough to capture the nature of Fianna Fail as it has been presented to us, as it once was, which is in the style of a "movement" --a bit like the GAA, for example, or the Church.

It is not just Big Phil. Many "experts" still believe -- and will continue to do so even after Fine Gael and Labour form a new Government -- that it is just a matter of time before Fianna Fail returns to power.

Such a belief is formed on no basis other than, eh, that's the way it always has been, when the only thing we can state with certainty is that nothing can be taken for granted anymore.

Throughout the campaign, such people confidently predicted, each passing day, that the voters would return, somewhat, to Fianna Fail, that each opinion poll would show -- wait for it -- the bounce that never came.

The reality, of course, is that at least a third of the people who voted Fianna Fail in 2007 went for Fine Gael on Friday, and another third, give or take, voted for a combination of Labour and Independents.

That tremor you may feel is as a consequence of iconic figures spinning in their grave -- Dev, Lemass, Lynch and the like, even Haughey himself, with whom the rot started, and all the various diehards who propped them up over the years.

When the votes are fully counted, in fact, we will find that well in excess of two-thirds of what we may now loosely refer to as Fianna Fail voters plumped for Fine Gael, Labour and Sinn Fein this time.

Which, in itself, prompts the question: who, or what, is a Fianna Fail voter anymore? A real Fianna Fail voter, that is, as we have come to caricature him, who would rather cut off his hand than place a number alongside a Fine Gael candidate.

The simple answer is that it is about 15 per cent of the electorate -- an ageing percentage, at that -- which is to say, about as many as attend League of Ireland football matches any given Sunday, which is, well, hardly a "movement", more a fan club.

A fuller answer, I would say, is that such diehards may still exist, but that they are a dwindling lot, and that within a generation they may have died out altogether, or have been diluted to such an extent that they may not matter anymore, certainly not to the extent that they once did.

The scale of the task which awaits Micheal Martin is daunting, indeed; the new leader who took on a job to save "the Party", a noble ambition, may now find that it is beyond him.

It is certainly more daunting than it was for Enda Kenny, who took on a similar challenge in 2002 -- when Fine Gael suffered a similar but less drastic fate -- for the reason that at least Fine Gael had promising local election candidates on the up, several of whom will now end up in Cabinet.

In Fianna Fail, a case could be made that the rot began, not with Ahern and Cowen, but with Haughey, in the Eighties -- and, in many ways, Fianna Fail has been dying ever since, which you may think is ridiculous, as it has just spent 14 years in power.

But I would contend that the Fianna Fail in power since 1997 was not the real Fianna Fail but a manifestation of it, as created, by necessity, by the emergence from within of the Progressive Democrats 10 years earlier.

As it turns out, Fianna Fail never quite recovered from the fracture that was caused by the emergence of the PDs. The party was traumatised by the event. It transformed itself into a version of the errant child, an unstable parent trying to keep an uneasy peace.

In the end, they just ate each other, the PDs first, by which time Fianna Fail did not know what it was anymore. The problem is that it still does not know, other than to espouse a kind of woolly nonsense of returning to roots arising out of a civil war.

The nominal Fianna Failers, then, who voted for Fine Gael and Labour on Friday, were not what we might call diehard Fianna Failers at all; that is, they are not steeped in the lore of civil war politics, nor in the welfare of the common man, but are something else entirely.

A large proportion of them, certainly, were relatively new to Fianna Fail in 1997, did well during the Celtic Tiger boom, and voted to 'keep-it-going-Patsy' until the collapse of everything around them.

A majority of them are, in fact, what are more loosely referred to as "floating" voters, who have stayed with Fianna Fail and the PDs for almost 15 years, but who, just as easily -- all too easily, as we have seen -- could feel equally at home somewhere else, a phenomenon particular in Dublin but evident nationwide.

For all of the predictable rhetoric of yesterday, Fine Gael, in fact, has failed to fully capitalise now on these momentous events, still unfolding.

An opportunity was there to move forward on its own, to form a government alone, but as can be the case in Fine Gael, it baulked at that opportunity in the final week of the campaign.

The early momentum was lost when it eased up its attacks on Labour and chose, instead, to concentrate fire on Fianna Fail, a bit like shooting fish in a barrel.

In fact, in time, Labour may come to regret this too. For a while it seemed as if a proper left-right divide was emerging, with Labour to lead the opposition. But that opportunity seems lost now too.

Of course, Labour will grab the opportunity to go into power now. But if it were to contemplate a longer view, it should look no further than to Fine Gael for inspiration as to what might come about.

The natural order of things was turned on its head in 2007. Fine Gael should have won that election. If Fine Gael had won four years ago, it would not find itself in the position it now does.

Such are the quirks of circumstance . . .

The point is, if Labour were to lead the Opposition now, we might well be anticipating the first Labour-led Government in the history of the State in 2016, the centenary of the execution of its own iconic figure, James Connolly.

For Fianna Fail, the future is bleak, a future which may in time lie elsewhere, in the form of a realignment if not a merger. A new political entity is on the horizon, for example, if the promises, or threats, emanating from Michael McDowell amount to anything.

Predictably enough, Micheal Martin has said the future of Fianna Fail lies in its past. That sounds more like a refuge, a retreat to where it thinks it may be safe, to lick its wounds, and to try to start again with what it has left and with the precious little coming through.

If Fianna Fail has a future, it is in the future, a future which starts now, but may not bear fruit for 10, more like 15 years -- a long time not just in politics, but life itself.

The challenge for Micheal Martin is to understand what the future might be, and to prepare for it. In this regard, as is manifest, his track record is not good.

Sunday Independent

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