Derek Mooney-Fianna Fáil and the long road to recovery.

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Continuing on our series of articles of elections in the South, former Fianna Fail advisor Derek Mooney writes about the current campaign, Fianna Fail’s recovery and what it has to do next.

While there are worse jobs in the world: the worst job in politics is certainly leader of the opposition.

If he didn’t already know this, it is certain that Fianna Fáil’s leader Micheal Martin will know this in just over a week.

The 2014 European and Local Election campaigns for which he and his HQ team have prepared and planned for over 18 months are proving themselves to be a source of unalloyed joy. It is hard to believe that these are the campaigns they wanted.

The latest round of opinion poll findings only confirm this. They suggest that

  • His Dublin Euro candidate will fail to take the seat
  • His Midlands North West duo may struggle to win a seat
  • While his Ireland South candidates have the best part of two quotas between but are so imbalanced as to render a second seat impossible.  

If the ballots cast on Friday confirm these poll findings, then it will be hard to make any of this sound like an achievement.

Add to this a series of resignations and protests over local election candidate selections, including the Blackrock Hanafiasco that has seem my onetime political rival Mary Hanafin returned as a non authorised/unrecognised Fianna Fáil candidate and you can see that the weeks ahead will be difficult ones for those at the top of the party.

The frustration of this for Martin and his supporters is that they have, on one level, a fairly decent tale to tell.  If the most recent polls, which are not exactly joyous for the soldiers of destiny, are correct, then the gap between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael has closed by between 13.5% and 15.5%.

ElectionFine GaelFianna FáilGap
Local Election 200934.7%25%9.7%
General Election 201136.1%17.4%18.7%
Sunday Times B&A Poll

18 May 2014

25%22%3%
Red C Irish Sun

19 May 2014

25%20%5%

   

The problem is that Fianna Fáil is not the biggest beneficiary of the decline. Fine Gael looks set to lose almost a third of the support it won in February 2011, but Fianna Fáil looks, at best, like convincing less than half of those disenchanted voters to look to it.

Where Fianna Fáil has made gains it has been among those groups it has least let down (definitely a relative term): younger and older voters. The group it has and will find hardest to convince are the middle ground – those struggling to pay mortgages and cope with massive negative equity.

Martin’s twin challenge upon becoming leader was first: to halt the decline and then to try win to win back as many of those people who voted for it in 2002 and 2007, but who chose Fine Gael in 2011.

That he has succeeded in the first task is clear but, his scorecard on the second may not be as impressive. Many of those who voted Fine Gael in February are deeply disenchanted by their performance in Government.

The party that promised new politics and a major break with the way things had been done by the previous crowd, has delivered neither. Instead; it merrily implements the broad policy approaches of the last Fianna Fáil led administration without their protections for those most hurt by the recession.

Despite this, the majority of these voters are prepared to either stick with Fine Gael or look to Independents or others. While these voters are prepared to engage with Fianna Fáil candidates at the doors, particularly newer, younger candidates – they remain largely unconvinced. 

Meanwhile, for a huge swathe of voters unhappy with the government, Fianna Fáil is effectively as much a part of the “government” as either Fine Gael or Labour. Right now voting Fianna Fail is most certainly not the way to go if your aim is to register protest at what the government is doing.

Martin’s Fianna Fáil still has a lot of work to do to convince them, it has yet to offer a clear and comprehensive statement of either what it stands for in a post-recession Ireland or how it plans to secure and expand the recovery to benefit everyone.

While the biggest job of work it faces is on the policy side, the last few weeks and months have also exposed some serious organisational issues. The party’s structures are still centred on its elected reps and candidates. Offend a candidate and you lose their organisation.

Worse still: select a bright candidate with great ideas but poor organisational abilities and you have neither the capacity nor the available expertise to help them get elected. This helps, in part, explain some of the party’s problems with its MEP campaigns.

Fianna Fáil’s problem with being seen as the “same as the government” is also reflected in the European Elections. While middle ground voters have not turned Eurosceptic, they are certainly euro critical. They are looking for MEPs who will go to Brussels to bang the table and tell them what for. This may explain Sinn Féin’s strong European showings, plus Ming Flanagan’s apparent lead over fellow Independent and long standing MEP, Marian Harkin.

The irony is that Fianna Fáil belongs to a group, ALDE, whose nominee for the Commission Presidency Guy Verhofstadt: recently reflected precisely these euro critical views in a debate with his rivals saying that the “current Commission leadership always phones Berlin & Paris before making a decision. That is the main problem”

But have you heard any of Fianna Fáil’s European candidates say this forcefully in recent weeks?

The German narrative of the eurocrisis – which is also the EPP Merkel, Sarkozy, Barosso – narrative should be challenged. It is something I have written about several times since mid-2011. See this one from April 2013

Perhaps some of them will do this during the final day’s debates – I sincerely hope they do.

We should be critical of Europe for precisely the reasons Verhofstadt outlined. No one knows this better than the members of the last government.

Yes, we did need Europe to help us bail out the banjaxed banks, but that help came at a massive price. Sarkozy and Merkel contrived to defend the Euro on the cheap on Irish soil… failed… then insisted that we pay the bill for the whole escapade.

It is this part of the narrative of the past six/seven years that Fianna Fáil has failed to develop, perhaps thanks to the understandable fear that no one really wants to hear its side of the story.

Before concluding I should admit a vested interest.  Though I have referred to Fianna Fáil in the third party throughout this piece; I am no impartial observer. I am a Fianna Fáil-er and have been involved at a senior level for decades. I am involved in several local election campaigns in Dublin. I backed a candidate other than Mary Fitzpatrick for the Dublin nomination. I was mooted as a possible Director of Communications for the Dublin euro-campaign, though the idea was binned. I ran against Mary Hanafin twice… but came out the wrong side of both encounters.

That said, I think Micheal Martin has done a decent job. He has done well on phase one: halting the decline, but not so well on phase two – making Fianna Fáil a party capable of governing.

The parallels with the party’s biggest political achievement of recent decades: The Good Friday Agreement, are significant.

While reaching that Agreement was a mammoth task that sometimes seemed impossible, looking back this part of the process was as nothing when compared to the difficulties in implementing it and making those institutions work.

So it is with phase two of Fianna Fáil’s recovery.

There is still a long way to go – and the leadership needs to look far beyond its own limited circle for the skills and energy to see it through.

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  • Jagdip

    If FF emerges on Saturday evening with just one MEP out of 11 seats, then Micheal is toast.

    Property tax and water charges may have been agreed by FF with the Troika, but the implementation of same has been ramshackle. There are literally thousands of painful cuts to health, education and security, each one of which is a rich emotional asset for FF. Scandal after scandal in culture, finance, health, environment, education, social protection and justice, has befallen the government.

    The Shinners are on track to romp home with three MEPs, none of them household names, even after that party was catapulted back to the barbarity of the Civil War with GA’s arrest.

    Is it not now presumptous to characterise the FF leader as “leader of the Opposition”?

    One MEP out of 11 on Saturday will topple Micheal.

  • Mc Slaggart

    “The frustration of this for Martin and his supporters is that they have, on one level, a fairly decent tale to tell. ”

    I think that Martin is the main problem. It appeared to be a one man show. Pearse Doherty and Mary Lou have a much higher profile than Martin allowed other members of FF to have.

  • Jagdip

    @McSlaggart, you’d have to admit though that John McGuinness at the public accounts committee has built, and been allowed to build, a major profile.

    Michael McGrath is not far off the profile of Pearse Doherty, and given Michael is a member of the party which agreed the deal with the Troika, he has been fighting with one hand tied behind his back (though, as time moves on, that constraint should weaken).

  • Framer

    After such a mammoth defeat last time and the economic bailout there is no way FF can make a full comeback until after the next general election. That they are alive at all is an achievement. They must still represent a certain strand in southern society.

  • Mick Fealty

    I think that may be wishful thinking on your part Jag. My reading of Derek’s piece is this is a critical line:

    Micheal Martin has done a decent job. He has done well on phase one: halting the decline, but not so well on phase two – making Fianna Fáil a party capable of governing.

    This is a problem that FF does not share with SF, who have no plans to land themselves in government any time soon.

    If they cannot crack this policy nut, then yes, they will be in trouble. A non shouty economically literate version of Pearse is not enough.

    Weakening FG was in the game plan from the off. Getting themselves in a fit state to govern is quite another matter. I think Framer has part of the answer.

    The degree to which the last administration broke a major bond of trust with the country is in part what’s held up a significant movement forward.

    But so far as I see, there is still, as yet, no serious contender for government.

  • Mc Slaggart

    Michael McGrath has a good profile among poor sods who watch the Vincent Brown type shows. He is good its the policy and history of FF economics that is the issue. When Greece got to give a hair cut to the people who they owed money it “sort of” supported sf line on the issue.

  • Mick Fealty

    To be fair though McS a line is not a policy. In seven years in Stormont SF have implemented no policies of their own. FF, as Derek notes don’t have that luxury.

  • Mc Slaggart

    Mick Fealty

    “To be fair though McS a line is not a policy”

    I think their “policy” was not to pay any of the bank debt?

    “In seven years in Stormont SF have implemented no policies of their own. ”

    Stormont is the ” dead space” of Irish political life. It preformed a useful function just not the one intended.

  • Mick Fealty

    Don’t toy with me!

  • Mc Slaggart

    Mick Fealty

    “Don’t toy with me!”

    ?

    What policies are coming out of the Assembly?

    It cannot even stop illegal Tyres being burned on massive bonfires.

  • Mick Fealty

    Primary healthcare reforms? Housing reforms? Local government reforms? There is some policy engagement in the Executive, there’s no evidence of it originating from the SF end.

    Each time they articulate a clear policy in the Republic (like a wage cap at Euro 100k, it is quickly finessed when someone points out that implementation will be neigh on impossible).

    Besides, very little of it is actual policy, more like signalling stories. Once the signal goes up and the position becomes unsustainable the party moves on, towards the next populist soundbite.

    Every party needs a touch of populism to get the required breadth of support. But if it doesn’t come with policy commitments, you are just doing what Irish Labour did last time, and banging a drum for a policy line without any visible means of support.

    FF cannot go down that route.

  • Jagdip

    @Mick, what would you rank as the Top 3 reforms from the DUP in Stormont?

    As for the Shinners, it is indeed hard to identity reforms which benefit cross-community society, though I suppose the tax on shopping bags would be one (environment wins, state coffers win, retail sector breaks even)

    Of course he plays to a particular constituency, but you have to marvel at Jimbo in the TUV, which isn’t even in government and has effectively delivered Ann’s Law, stopped (for now) the development of the Maze and won pension equality for RUC widows (with PSNI widows).

  • Mc Slaggart

    Mick Fealty

    “Primary healthcare reforms? Housing reforms? Local government reforms? There is some policy engagement in the Executive”

    That is your list its so depressing.

  • Mc Slaggart

    Mick

    “FF cannot go down that route. ”

    Not surprising after the took the economic car off a cliff.

  • Mick Fealty

    I think it’s not easy for any party in Stormont to make an impact. What’s notable possibly for the reasons that Tom Kelly outlined yesterday SF just haven’t bothered.

    Taking up oppositional stances is good business is that all anyone expects you to do. But it does rely upon a political collapse amongst your opponents.

    I think Mooney identifies a clear need for Fianna Fáil to become politically proactive in the next stage of its recovery.

    Sinn Fein have a good story but it’s almost completely without proof of substance. Fianna Fáil have plenty of substance that little in the way of the story to tell.

    If you want to be a credible party of government in an independent republic you have to have both.

    I’d say by and large Fianna Fáil have pretty effectively detoxified. They have confident policy literate TDs although too few of them are I impact players.

    Most of the advantages they have going forward relate to the weakness of the government parties and the sheer lack of interest within Sinn Fein for governing.

    First on the agenda after these elections will have to be start building some bridges, within the party and between the party and its wider constituency.

  • Mc Slaggart

    Mick

    ” Fianna Fáil have pretty effectively detoxified”

    I do not think you are correct and these elections will prove one of us wrong. They are that their core vote and is still up for grabs. It is the personal vote that is keeping FF percentage up in the election.

    “Fianna Fáil have plenty of substance”

    To my ears they have agreed with a lot of what FG/Labour have done. It is that why ” Fianna Fáil is effectively as much a part of the “government” as either Fine Gael or Labour”.

    “lack of interest in Sinn Fein for governing”

    They do not want to be the smaller party. Then again who will after the next election?

  • Mick Fealty

    LOL!! Even Berlusconi had to start somewhere!! Are you expecting something to happen then that’s way out of scale with the current polling?

  • Mc Slaggart

    Mick

    Did you see the latest polling? By the next general election sf could be back on 8% or the largest party.

    IpsosMRBI LE 20 May:

    Independents/Other 28.

    FF 23.

    FG 23.

    SF 19.

    Lab 7.

    http://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/independents-set-to-emerge-from-local-elections-as-largest-bloc-1.1801740

  • Mick Fealty

    They are a political campaign group more than a political party. FF will be judged (rightly) by much more exacting standards.

  • Mc Slaggart

    @ Mick

    FF are a collection of individual peoples fiefdom. Micheal Martin will lucky to survive this coming election.

    SF are a in a state of change but that is being directed from a center.