FF must set clear course or be left trailing in Leo's wake
The election of Leo Varadkar as Taoiseach is a pivotal turning point in the lifetime of this Dáil. It marks a seismic switch in focus from the last election's legacy towards gearing up for the next contest.
It will markedly heighten tension, up the tempo and increase the adversarial testiness of all political combat. In all parties and none, energy will supplant lethargy. The starting pistol will be fired on the real race - who will be taoiseach after the next election.
As of now the bookies (always my default starting point of realism for perspicacious punditry) say it's a two-way fight with Micheál Martin 4/6 favourite and Leo Varadkar 5/4. That suggests Fianna Fáil is set fair to again become the largest party and lead the next government.
It's time to stress-test where FF is at right now and whether its complete reincarnation as the party of power, as under Bertie, is imminent.
When Mr Martin took over the leadership in 2011, he knew it would require a two-election strategy to recover the loss of 57 seats and base line of 19 TDs.
The 2016 General Election result represented excellent progress with a 24.9pc vote and 45 TDs. Mr Martin had the best leader's campaign; appearing reasonable, measured, confident and assured on policy detail. Attaining government was always a step too far, preferring an interim lame-duck administration dependent on FF support as the best launch pad for 60 seats next time.
The battleground for FF versus FG is established: who can achieve 30pc vote share, given their combined market share is a minimum of 50pc and maximum of 60pc; who can get nearest to 60 TDs, by winning the hearts and minds of middle Ireland.
Each decade their traditional hardcore loyal base diminishes due to the passing of the oldest, most tribal generation. Some 500,000 voters regularly oscillate between both parties. It's a toe-to-toe rivalry.
They're two sides of the same coin, competing for market share edge and supremacy. Lidl and Aldi. Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Guinness and Murphy's. Man United and Man City. Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Take your pick. Different brands, same essential product.
FF always primarily relies on winning the ground war of candidates interfacing with constituents. FF HQ's plan for 60 seats is based on 40 individual constituency contests. The boundary commission is likely to add one to two extra TDs in the areas of Dublin central or Dublin north-west, based on the new population census. No radical change.
Low-hanging fruit for Fianna Fáil gains are: Dún Laoghaire, Dublin South central, Dublin central, Longford/Westmeath and Limerick city, getting them to 50 seats. Possible further gains include: Wexford, Galway West/Mayo, Dublin Rathdown, Dublin Fingal, Carlow/Kilkenny, Limerick County, Meath West, Clare, Cork north-central, Kerry, Carlow/Kilkenny, Cork south-west and Cork East.
The working assumptions are that all the second seats they gained are retained - not an automatic slam dunk in border counties/commuter belts.
The second Fianna Fáil pillar will be populist policy proposals - initiatives (electoral sweeteners) of perks for pensioners, social housing commitments, less hospital trolleys, soothing sounds about restoring public sector pay, detailed Brexit plans and specific tax cuts. It'll be a standard, age-old formula of buying votes with voters' money, with the usual palaver of "within available fiscal space" caveats.
The central themes for Fianna Fáil last time were: "An Ireland for all" and "Fairness". The core message is "Inclusion". Lovely stuff - utterly unopposable. Bland baloney.
Here's the rub: in a post-Kenny and Adams world, where does Fianna Fáil's unique appeal stand? As Leo redefines the centre and Mary Lou McDonald redefines the left, could Fianna Fáil's pitch become so indistinct, catch-all, banal and even trite that it loses traction with cynical floating and apathetic young voters? In a rat race of harsher economic and social options, will Fianna Fáil make the hard choices as to which niche it seeks to occupy?
Could the youthful, dynamic, high-octane, articulate and forceful stump charisma of Leo and Mary Lou make Micheál look ageing and dated? Will Fianna Fáil be the only mainstream party not to attempt an X factor? In the modern electoral social media world of Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron, will FF's reliance on 'politics as usual' thrive?
The one certainty is that complacent assumptions of FF restoring its natural order of ascendancy through historic political gravity or Buggins' turn are redundant in a rapidly changing competitive campaign landscape. Fianna Fáil may rue the missed opportunity to go for the jugular last month to take out the Garda Commissioner and Government while Fine Gael was rudderless.
Last year, voters weren't yet ready to fully forgive Fianna Fáil for national insolvency, but wanted to give FG/Labour a sharp kick in the arse - opting for a halfway house of non-party candidates. The next election will likely see the national mood swing away from the predominant surge of protest that elected up to 40 Independent/non-party TDs.
They will consider the preference for stable, sustainable government. We've learned that government formation is about building an all-Ireland championship-winning team - not a hybrid collection of All Stars. We've tried Shane Ross semantics, noted Danny Healy Rae notions and endured Mattie McGrath's musings. Colourful characters lacking cohesion aren't Ireland's optimal answer to Brexit.
Despite a more favourable response for potential party platforms, Fianna Fáil has to internally ask searching questions, demand more effective responses. Fianna Fáil's frontbench performance has been patchy at best.
Michael McGrath is constructive and earnest on financial vignettes of tax, insurance, mortgage and consumer topics, but hasn't established himself as a national macroeconomic authority voice. Barry Cowen's pugnacity on water and housing has been enigmatic and erratic. Willie O'Dea and John McGuinness do their own thing independently. Jim O'Callaghan is articulate and bright, but is the principal victim of the 'supply and confidence' shadow boxing on Dáil votes. Billy Kelleher and Timmy Dooley could try harder. Éamon Ó Cuív seems to have disappeared. I can't remember the rest.
All of the above is fixable, but Fianna Fáil's unfixable fundamental flaw is Mr Martin's total indecision of future government formation. Let's tick all its most optimistic boxes: Fianna Fáil wins 60 seats; it becomes the largest party; it is ready to lead a stable government. De facto, 60 is 20-plus short of a majority. What does it want? The only options are: reversal of 'new politics', a minority Fianna Fáil administration, with Fine Gael opposition support; a grand coalition of FF/FG; or an historic Fianna Fáil/Sinn Féin coalition.
Mr Martin deflects all answers with tangential responses of: It's important to retain the centre ground continuity with alternating Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael-led coalitions; Governments with large majorities have poor records; You can't presume electoral outcomes in advance.
We know the overall configurations that FF/Labour/Social Democrats/FF gene-pool Independents won't reach an 80-plus majority or provide a viable, durable administration. You may not even get maximum of 60 Fianna Fáil seats.
Sorry Micheál, that's leaderless evasive bluster and waffle. For now, you can get away with that. But if you fail to chart a post-election course to the taoiseach's office during the next campaign, then you can hardly expect stakeholders in Ireland Inc, desperate for government, to rally to your cause.
My advice to this cute Corkman? Take your courage in your hands. Declare on the hustings that you'll leave all government options open in your singular pursuit to lead the next government as the largest party.
State absolute conviction in your policies as the overriding pursuit of pragmatic programme for government formation. Start preparing that territory now internally.
Remember, with inter-generational leadership change emerging, if the next cabinet cruise sails without you - there may not be another boat to catch as skipper.