Tuesday 22 January 2019

All parties must weather Sinn Fein storm, but FF must try and win ground in the capital

Fianna Fail leader, Michael Martin, with Cllr. Mary Fitzpatrick
Fianna Fail leader, Michael Martin, with Cllr. Mary Fitzpatrick

Brian Murphy

It was 1985 and the key election messages from the leader of Fianna Fail were economic recovery and party renewal. Sometimes the more times change, the more they stay the same.

Twenty-nine years ago, Charles Haughey said the 'locals' were an important 'first stage' in the effort to restore his party to government. His strategy was to place an emphasis on young candidates and to give special attention to Dublin, which was viewed as the party's electoral 'Achilles' heel.'

In preparing for the election, Ray Burke was put in charge of candidate selection for Co Dublin and Bertie Ahern was given the same responsibility for Dublin city. Brian Lenihan Senior was given the job of reorganising Fianna Fail party structures. The outcome was a stunning success. In the capital, Fianna Fail broke two decades of Fine Gael and Labour control of the local authorities. Nationally, Fianna Fail polled a massive 46pc of the vote.

One of the many first-time Fianna Fail candidates elected in this landslide was a young teacher from Turner's Cross in Cork. His name was Micheal Martin. Almost three decades on from his initial election to Cork Corporation, Martin is immersed in the Herculean task of rebuilding Fianna Fail after the 2011 meltdown and restoring its reputation for economic competence.

Like Haughey, Martin has placed a lot of faith in fresh candidates and Dublin is once again being viewed as a key battleground. The party's former deputy leader, Eamon O Cuiv, has already signalled the prime importance of Mary Fitzpatrick winning a European seat in Dublin.

There are a myriad of lessons that can be drawn from past local and European elections.

Local elections have often been an extremely accurate weathervane to gauge how Labour will do in the forthcoming general election. In the local elections in 1991, Labour gained 3pc, with a particularly strong performance in Dublin. This was the first sighting of the 'Spring tide' that 17 months later would see Labour achieve its then best ever showing in a general election, securing 33 Dail seats. In the locals in 1999, despite much optimism generated by the merger with Democratic Left, Labour's vote flatlined at 10.7pc. In the subsequent general election in 2002, the party secured an almost identical 10.8pc.

The last locals in 2009 saw a seismic shift in the political balance of power. Fine Gael became the largest party in local government for the first time. Less than two years later, Enda Kenny was elected Taoiseach. While a good performance in local elections can be a springboard for further success, a poor one doesn't always mean political demise.

Fine Gael's share of the vote fell in John Bruton's first outing as party leader in the locals in 1991, but this did not stop him becoming Taoiseach three years later. In 2004, Fianna Fail lost 80 council seats in what was then its worst-ever election result.

Bertie Ahern interpreted this rebuff as stemming from voter dissatisfaction based on a perception that his government had moved too far to the right. Soon after the election, in a clear attempt at political repositioning, Ahern made his famous comments that he was "one of the few socialists left in Irish politics". In 2007, Ahern won an almost unprecedented third term as Taoiseach.

Dr Adrian Kavanagh, one of the country's leading electoral analysts, has pointed out that European elections often involve a large element of personality contest and that many MEPs subsequently run for president.

Brian Crowley, Ireland's longest serving MEP had wanted to run for president in 2011, but his own party controversially decided not to contest the election.

My abiding memory of the 1999 European elections was being in Fianna Fail headquarters when the then party general secretary Martin Mackin announced that news had come through from the Munster count centre that Brian Crowley had received more than 150,000 first-preference votes. It was a stunning result achieved by a hardworking politician. It was also the then highest vote ever obtained by a European election candidate in this State. Crowley has topped the poll in successive European elections since 1994.

European elections have been memorable for internal party battles. In 1994, Labour's Bernie Malone and Orla Guerin went head-to-head in Dublin. Malone was a public representative of 15 years' standing. Guerin was a first-time candidate with the strong support of the Labour leadership. While there are some superficial parallels with what has been dubbed 'the Battle of Blackrock' between Mary Hanafin and Kate Feeney, as Fergus Finlay records in his memoir, the Malone-Guerin row was a truly bitter affair with "daily tension and disagreement, usually degenerating into shouting matches – about money, about support, about territory".

In 2004, Mary Lou McDonald won Sinn Fein's first Euro seat in this State and they doubled their vote in the local elections to 8pc. Bertie Ahern, with some hyperbole, claimed Sinn Fein had won the election. A decade on – if the opinion polls are vindicated and Sinn Fein takes a seat in every Euro constituency and breaks 20pc in the locals – even the hyperbole will have been decommissioned.

Dr Brian Murphy has recently completed a PhD thesis in the School of History and Archives, UCD

Irish Independent

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