Saturday 20 July 2019

Liam Weeks: 'FF may hope for forgiveness but the voters won't forget its flaws'

The party may show signs of life, but the prognosis for Fianna Fail is still looking uncertain, writes Liam Weeks

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald. Photo: PA
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald. Photo: PA

We all heard the joke during the recession that the only difference between Ireland and Iceland was one letter and six months.

While our economy was drastically hit by the financial crisis, the meltdown was even greater in Iceland. The Independence Party, in government on an almost permanent basis, bore the brunt of the blame for the country's near-bankruptcy, losing one-third of its votes and seats at the 2009 parliamentary elections. In its place, a left-wing coalition formed, which quickly implemented a programme of austerity.

This all sounds familiar to our own experience, where in 2011 Fianna Fail was punished by voters for its role in the economic crash.

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But that is where the similarities end.

Just four years after the Independence Party fell from grace, it was back in power, becoming the largest party after the 2013 elections, a position it still retains today.

While the party's support remains below its pre-crash levels, considering the severity of the recession in Iceland, its recovery was remarkably swift.

In contrast, the Irish public has taken a longer time to forgive Fianna Fail. The party has been out of office for over eight years now, its longest ever spell on the sidelines.

But, with it remaining the largest party in local government after the recent elections, is it now time to ask if Irish voters have replicated the generosity of their Icelandic counterparts, and granted Fianna Fail a pardon for its part in the country's downfall?

This has been the conclusion of some commentators last week following on the results of a few opinion polls, but we should be wary of these one-off results.

It was only 18 months ago that Fianna Fail looked to be in danger of becoming the third party of Irish politics. Fine Gael and Sinn Fein had new leaders, both of whom had the potential to bring their respective parties to new heights in the polls.

Leo Varadkar used Brexit and the green card to surge ahead in the polls, and many predicted a considerable bounce for Sinn Fein with the coronation of Mary Lou McDonald.

But, as with its wipeout in 2011, Fianna Fail has proven more resilient than many expected.

Micheal Martin outmanoeuvred the Taoiseach last December with a commitment to support the government in the national interest, which brought an end to Leo Varadkar's honeymoon, and has facilitated Fianna Fail closing the gap on its rivals.

Meanwhile, the party has extended its lead over Sinn Fein, for whom the only Mary Lou effect that has materialised has been a negative one.

This was all but confirmed at the local elections, where Fianna Fail won more than three times as many seats as Sinn Fein.

While some may argue that Fianna Fail as the main opposition should have had a better performance at these mid-term second-order elections, the party's confidence and supply agreement with Fine Gael means that it is not seen as a pure opposition by the electorate.

Propping up a Fine Gael government with little to show for it could have been a move that hurt Fianna Fail badly, but the party still managed to make positive, albeit small, gains.

And so Fianna Fail now seems to be a genuine contender for government again, over a decade on from the infamous bank guarantee of 2008.

While in the years of austerity politics the party's record in creating the mess was repeatedly referred to by the Opposition, this line of attack seems to have disappeared.

Indeed, the parties who harped on about this the most, on the far left, had a poor local elections, suggesting that the electorate has moved on from the crash.

So does this mean that it has also forgiven Fianna Fail? There is undoubtedly still a level of nascent anger over the recession, but no one wants to dwell on a miserable past. It may be more a case of the public consciously choosing not to think about Fianna Fail's mistakes, rather than deliberately forgiving the party.

It may also be that the electorate doesn't want to hold a grudge against the party that ruled Ireland for 61 of the 79 years prior to its meltdown in 2011.

After all, the reason why Fianna Fail ruled the Irish state for much of its existence was because the voters put it into power in the first place. To be angry with the party is to be angry with oneself. And that wasn't going to last. It is as much about the electorate forgiving itself for its greed and excess as it is an easing off on the criticisms of Fianna Fail.

But, is the party really ''baaack'' as former junior minister Conor Lenihan claimed after the 2016 general election?

Fianna Fail's vote is still down about 40pc on its pre-2011 national average. It has 30 fewer TDs and more than 100 fewer councillors than it used to have. It also has only one MEP.

The Fianna Fail as we knew it is not back, and is unlikely ever to be back. That was the dominant Fianna Fail, the party that just had to look into its heart to know what Ireland was thinking. That Fianna Fail saw government as its natural place.

But that Fianna Fail is gone. Only a handful of the current parliamentary party have served in Cabinet.

And Ireland is not Iceland. As much as voters want to forget about the doom and gloom of the recession, they don't want Fianna Fail to forget. They don't want a return to a Fianna Fail that saw power as its natural entitlement.

In this way, Fianna Fail has become just another party. This might have de Valera turning in his grave, but the embrace of normality is something the party would have snapped off your hand for in 2011, when there seemed as much chance of de Valera himself rising Lazarus-like as there was for the party.

Dr Liam Weeks is a lecturer in the Department of Government & Politics at University College Cork

Sunday Independent

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