Monday 23 October 2017

FF also-rans in two-horse race to power

Jody Corcoran reveals details of a confidential report, the Fianna Fail blueprint for recovery, drawn up by the party after election meltdown in 2011

STRATEGY DOCUMENTS: Fianna Fail’s plans for recovery
STRATEGY DOCUMENTS: Fianna Fail’s plans for recovery
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

And then there were two. Today's opinion poll shows the next Government will be led by either Fine Gael or Sinn Fein. Where does that leave Fianna Fail? In crisis is where, not that you would realise it from a party which seems to have settled on a steady course towards irrelevance.

In summer, into autumn of 2011, a traumatised Fianna Fail parliamentary party met twice, at hotels in Sutton and on the Naas Road in Dublin. The meetings were also attended by experts in the areas of marketing, public relations, consumer affairs, retail and business in general. Many were supporters of the party, others not necessarily so, but interested in a project: how to rescue a once great political movement from the brink of oblivion.

Mark Ryan acted as facilitator at a meeting in the Grand Hotel in Sutton. Ryan is a serious player, a management consultant until recently head of Accenture in Ireland. He also has pedigree. He is brother of Eoin Ryan, a former Fianna Fail TD, minister and MEP; son of Eoin Ryan Senior, a former Fianna Fail senator; grandson of James Ryan, a founding member of Fianna Fail, and long-serving minister.

More than 80 proposals came from the meeting, at the end of which no less a figure than Pat 'the Cope' Gallagher rose to his feet to declare it one of the best he had ever attended.

Three years later a raging Gallagher would lose his seat in the European Parliament, his anger directed at the leadership of Micheal Martin and his lieutenants, who had imposed another candidate. Defeat at national level was masked only by success in the local elections. Fianna Fail clung to the outcome of local elections, seemingly content that voters wanted them to fix potholes but not run the country.

But on that day, in July, 2011, there was something of a spring in their step: from a low of 17pc in the General Election that year, Fianna Fail could be rescued, or so it was believed.

Mark Ryan went to work. He distilled the 80 or so proposals into a six-point programme, effectively the blueprint to save Fianna Fail. The Sunday Independent has obtained a copy of that plan, which was presented to the parliamentary party meeting on September 13, 2011.

The following areas were identified: communications and "fixing the disconnect"; "core values"; organisation structures; policy development; how the parliamentary party operates; and financial sustainability. Recovery would require "unity of purpose & prioritisation (sense of urgency)"; "clear vision for Party (a North Star) & what it stands for"; "leadership & visible commitment from the top (i.e. the PP)"; "A plan (what, by when and who)"; "heavy lifting (i.e. A lot of work) over a sustained period; "A communications 'strategy' (how all stakeholders are managed)"; "co-ordination (multiple activities), alignment (the North Star) & governance (control)"; "no quick fix - driven by capacity & key milestones (over next 2-4 years)."

Four years later, as today's opinion poll shows, Fianna Fail is stuck at 19pc, just two points ahead of that meltdown election result. Fine Gael (25pc) and Sinn Fein (26pc) have streaked ahead for the first time putting clear blue water between themselves and Fianna Fail. By that yardstick, by any yardstick, Fianna Fail has failed to implement the programme for recovery, what it called An tSli, or The Way, to rescue and rebuild the party.

Governance of The Way was vested in Micheal Martin, the leader, with various TDs and officials to take responsibility for implementation. For example, Martin was to head up responsibility for defining Fianna Fail's core values. In that regard, the blueprint asked searching questions: the party needed to "define what it now stands for"; what the "vision" for the party now was; the party needed a "renewal agenda"; needed to "embrace change" and "to become relevant to the people again." On policy development, the responsibility of Barry Cowen, the party needed to "create a real policy development process", "embrace the views of Party members"; ensure "expert views" were incorporated; identify "key new areas of policy development".

In summary, The Way document said the areas that "need to be changed have been identified"; a "structure and plan" to manage the change was now in place; the role and visible commitment of the parliamentary party was "now crucial"; but "patience is required"; the parliamentary party would be briefed on a monthly basis with the next Ard Fheis a "clear first milestone" for the new programme.

At that Ard Fheis, in March 2012, Micheal Martin apologised for the mistakes made by Fianna Fail in Government. It was a start. Within a year the party had started to recover. In February 2013, Fianna Fail topped our opinion polls at 27pc, rising at one point to 29pc in June that year.

At the time, Fianna Fail TDs felt hostility on the doorsteps had eased, even if the welcome was not effusive. Anger was reserved for Fine Gael and Labour, who had fallen back to single digit support, while Sinn Fein was struggling to break the 20pc barrier.

This was when The Way forward was needed, that "sense of urgency" to outline what the party stood for; a philosophy or vision, to be relevant, to roll out those real policies, for the "North Star" to shine. Instead - nothing.

Still seemingly paralysed by fear, or guilt, Fianna Fail decided not to rock the boat, to sit back and hope the opinion polls would continue to show rise. Doing nothing was not an option, but in 2014 the rot set in. Fianna Fail started to fall back, from mid-to-high 20pc to low 20pc support; falling dramatically from 26pc in January 2014 to 21pc when the Troika departed.

But the party did nothing to arrest the decline, anticipating a temporary blip, perhaps: no vision, no policies, and no urgency, even when the Government's post-Troika honeymoon began to wear off.

The Coalition continued to struggle in the face of Alan Shatter controversies and the backlash against austerity. In April last year Labour fell back to 6pc, for example. But Fianna Fail also fell: it was Sinn Fein who steadily gained ground, by now displacing the party in the mid-20pc support range.

Whatever became of An tSli, or The Way? Nothing much - other than the introduction of 'one member one vote' and a few other bits and bobs, mere tinkering around the edges. Where were the policy documents, the reconnect, the relevance? Nothing was produced by the frontbench, or nothing worth talking about.

In fact, a new parlour game had begun: could you name the Fianna Fail frontbench, could you identify them if they walked into the room? Most could not.

It seemed to many that Fianna Fail were settling into complacency; most of the parliamentary party came across as content to retain their seats, won in the teeth of an almighty crash, and happy enough to do so again.

There was the outside chance Fianna Fail might win power by default: voters angry with Fine Gael (and Labour) and wary of Sinn Fein (and the far-Left) might retreat to the centre. But Fianna Fail had failed to stake out that centre as their radical ground.

Then the water charge protest happened, which as our poll shows, saw support for the Independents shoot up to a massive 32pc. Rather than gain, Fianna Fail fell back, to below the psychological 20pc mark - from a high of 29pc two years earlier to a low of 18pc last month.

At around the same time another parlour game began: who would form the next Government? Enda Kenny and Gerry Adams stole a march of Micheal Martin, who was nowhere to be seen. The Fine Gael leader said the election would be between Fine Gael and Sinn Fein and Adams was happy to concur: neither would go into coalition with each other, or with Fianna Fail.

For his part, Micheal Martin held out limply for Labour, but it was too little, too late. Nobody really cared: Kenny and Adams had set the agenda.

Today's opinion poll shows it. The Independents have suffered a significant drop, from a 32pc high to 23pc.

But it is the dispersal of that lost support which is so relevant. It has gone to Fine Gael, up three points, and Sinn Fein, up five points, a clear indication that voters are now content to believe the next election really will be between Fine Gael and Sinn Fein.

Fianna Fail, meanwhile, is talking up winning 40 seats nationwide, and retaking a foothold in Dublin. It is just talk. This poll shows voters have started to make up their minds, and in their minds, Fianna Fail has become irrelevant or is on the brink of irrelevance.

Last week the party issued what started out as a policy position on childcare, but ended up a discussion document, dressed up as a private members motion, with a financial black hole to the tune of almost €1bn.

Micheal Martin, the "North Star", and his ploughman's lunch of a front bench have three months to do what four years ago they vowed to do: rescue the party or be consigned as also-rans. A year from the election, their situation could not be more perilous.

Sunday Independent

Also in this section