Monday 19 August 2019

'Shy' Fianna Fáil in an uncertain political world

Fianna Fáil’s Billy Kelleher
Fianna Fáil’s Billy Kelleher
John Downing

John Downing

There are many indicators of the big political changes this country has undergone since our financial world fell asunder in 2008. Among my current favourites is a reference to "shy Fianna Fáil".

In my lifetime, the "Soldiers of Destiny" have been called many things, a good proportion of which could not printed in a mainstream newspaper. But they were never, ever, known as "shy". In fact, they personified the very opposite in Irish political life.

Of course, the term refers to that coterie of voters who will quietly slope back to Fianna Fáil next time, but for the moment are not telling pollsters, their neighbours, friends and even their nearest and dearest.

The phenomenon first came into our lexicon in 1990s Britain, when many voters were reticent about publicly declaring their intention to vote Conservative out of total financial self-interest.

It was "uncool" to concede such a staid and solipsistic mindset. Similarly, there are many people in Ireland seriously contemplating voting Fianna Fáil but not quite ready to publicly say so.

But the party itself is facing a changing world and their newly minted director of elections, Billy Kelleher, had some contentious things to say in recent days about the party's approach to the next general election. The affable Cork North Central TD has often been underestimated, his youthful appearance belies a quarter century of successful political involvement, and he may well be a future party leader.

However, his statements got him a pretty hard time. In essence, he said the party will win in or about 35 Dáil seats next time out. But there will be no coalition with Fine Gael or Sinn Féin, and no outside-of-cabinet support for a minority Fine Gael government.

These cast-iron declarations reasonably suggest that Fianna Fáil is actively contemplating another stint on the opposition benches. Such an admission would concentrate many middle-of-the-road voters to look elsewhere for the business of picking a government.

There was happiness among some in Fine Gael circles. They have grounds to feel that they are slowly, but surely, coming up the rail, set to be the biggest party next time, and in pole position to form the next government.

Yesterday's Red C opinion poll in the 'Sunday Business Post' put Fine Gael on 31pc. Red C managing director Richard Colwell noted that the party has gained 6pc in the past four months, and drilling deeper into the findings he had other encouraging messages for Enda Kenny and Co.

We have to note that this is all good stuff for Enda Kenny's chances of making it back to Government Buildings next spring. There are good grounds for speculating that in the new year, when people really contemplate the approaching election, there could be a surge in favour of Fine Gael.

But let's go back to Fianna Fáil and Billy Kelleher's comments. The reality is that his words were pretty realistic.

The party is holding its own and will have a "good election," which could allow them argue that it is the first of two contests on the slow road to recovery. Comparisons will be made with Fine Gael's slow road back after their 2002 electoral meltdown.

After all, Fianna Fáil did get 25pc and 266 council seats nationwide in the May 2014 local elections. To everyone's surprise, they became the biggest party of local government.

There will be 40 constituencies in the next general election and the party will compete for at least one seat in all of them and might "double-up" with two TDs in some places.

Dublin, where they currently have no TD, of course remains a problem. There are 10 constituencies in the capital returning 40 TDs next time, and Fianna Fáil may return as few as five Dublin TDs.

Elsewhere, in places like Kerry and Tipperary, there are non-party TDs perceived by many as "Fianna Fáil gene pool members". The party will face continuing problems. But all observers agree that 35-plus TDs is a reasonable number.

By yesterday Billy Kelleher remained defiant, arguing that Fianna Fáil wanted to provide an alternative to Fine Gael. "The idea that we can just have a coronation is ridiculous and not what voters would expect.

"We want to ensure that there is an alternative to Enda Kenny as Taoiseach. All I did was highlight the challenges in doing that. This Government has failed in key areas, case in point being health," he said.

"We are the only party that can offer an alternative. The party we are ruling out in terms of support is Fine Gael because we have to provide a credible alternative to that proposal," he argued.

There are some other things about all this which Billy Kelleher cannot publicly say right now. One is that Fine Gael's constant message to voters that "Vote Fianna Fáil - and you'll get Sinn Féin" means that he had to strongly rule out an "FF-SF" alliance.

It is also clear that a coalition with Fianna Fáil as junior partner to Fine Gael could see Eamon de Valera's party being swallowed up. The only real question might be whether the line-up should be named "Fine Fáil" or "Fianna Gael".

Billy Kelleher did not use the term "shy Fianna Fáil". That came over the weekend in a radio contribution from the party's contender in Dublin Bay South, Cllr Jim O'Callaghan. But the party is making a big play to return their old supporters and activists.

The Fianna Fáil leadership also know that these factors may add to Fine Gael's store as the biggest party and the one most likely to provide stable government. There is also the little detail of delivering government. The reality is that all these statements about future coalition intentions may not survive beyond the first inconclusive vote for Taoiseach.

In reality, simple Dáil arithmetic may change these 'no-coalition' declarations. All parties, including Fianna Fáil, will know a second swift general election - rather than cutting a government deal of some sort - may not help their own future prospects.

Any party fingered as the one which would not provide government could lose in a second election.

Irish Independent

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