After Sinn Fein, Fianna Fail is the longest continuously operating party in the Republic. Their long ongoing argument with big rival Fine Gael is often characterised as a continuation of civil war politics.
Yet such reasoning is largely academic. These historic if unresolved issues have barely featured in southern political life in thirty years. Class is probably a more significant factor, with Fianna Fail traditionally drawing more support from the lower end of Ireland’s social scale.
Yet even that is insufficient to explain the residual cultural/political difference between the two. Perhaps, given FF’s historic propensity to dominate in government over the last eighty plus years, it could be argued that in binary code FF renders as a 1 to FG’s 0; ie, it has built its reputation as ‘the party of government’ on a capacity for ‘getting things done’.
So you might figure from that, how much of a shock the last Irish general election was in which the party was given it was a public drubbing of such truly epic proportions. This is not a party for whom sitting and twiddling idle parliamentary thumbs on Dail benches comes easily.
The economic collapse was the ostensible reason, but more deeply fifteen too comfortable years in government effected a capture by the civil service gradually lost the party their reputation for un-jargoned plain speaking and concrete delivery.
In the event, the party’s failure to win more than one European seat was the most obvious misfire. Pat the Cope Gallagher lost out just this morning after losing by a couple of hundred votes, whilst Mary Fitzpatrick in Dublin was further adrift.
Yet other more fundamental factors which tell tell a rather different and more nuanced story than the one currently being told in Dublin and Belfast.
In both by elections, the party came second with a much improved transfer rate from other candidates. And in the South EP constituency the transfer rate brought their second candidate in contention for the fourth and final seat.
Strong showings in Cavan and Donegal County Councils will also please party activists. The latter is dropping a Dail seat next time out, so we could see an useful SF/FF faceoff there.
Despite scoring their second lowest result in the party’s history, and striking almost the same percentage as 2009, Fianna Fail took 25.3% of the vote and 28.4% of council seats. They also lead in 14 of 31 councils including Cork, and hold second place in Dublin.
Put simply, the re-engineering of the wider political landscape has substantially strengthened its strategic positioning (if not it’s direct power) in the country.
You can expect a lot of emphasis on strategically important Dublin in the next few years. The Dublin West byelection suggests there’s one seat at least to be had. But they will need much more if they are to stand any chance of regaining a trusted ‘party of government’ status.
“Where Dublin goes, the country follows” they say. That’s why Sinn Fein are so excited about their genuine achievements in these elections. And it is why Fianna Fail also understand that success in the country is not enough for them to claim they are properly back.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty