After #GE16… Fianna Fail emerges with a fresh team and a practical agenda for reform

“From our party’s point of view, it’s a strong result”, so said Fianna Fail’s quiet spoken General Secretary Sean Dorgan as RTE’s coverage came to a close: the understatement of a man who knows his homework is done and handed in well ahead of the rest of the class.

It was a devastating return. Reeling in Fine Gael to an uncomfortably close distance and far outstripping the new hopefuls, Sinn Fein. After falling to considerably less than its core vote in 2011, it emerges with a bonus of 23 seats and an extra 150,000 votes.

They are back in every single constituency in the Republic. From Kerry where they took back one, to Sligo and Leitrim, Kildare North, Cavan and Monaghan, Mayo and even Donegal – where pundits predicted they would get squeezed by Sinn Fein – they took two.

In Dublin Darragh O’Brien took 23% of the vote in Fingal, whilst they missed taking a seat in Dun Laoghaire despite taking nearly 19% of the vote. Six TDs have made it over the line the capital. Six of the new intake are women, plus two others still in long recounts.

In contrast, to those who left whilst the ship was actually going down, most of those who jumped ship (presumably because they didn’t quite believe the ship was on its way back up) failed to get elected. As did arch Martin critic and former Minister Mary Hanafin.

Despite the second place Martin this leaves in the strongest position of any leader in the south. And yet very few polls or pundits spotted the newly rising Fianna Fail coming until the short and hugely intense campaign was all but over.

For much of the last four years, the polls have suggested that Sinn Fein was significantly more popular with voters than Fianna Fail. Not everyone was convinced, but often Sinn Fein spokesmen were quicker with the sound bites and got the headlines.

In that early period Martin held his own at Leaders Questions but he calculated the country had heard enough from Fianna Fail and spent much of his time engaging – something of an FF buzzword now – directly with party activists.

Lack of media attention dropped expectations (and rival defences) allowing them peace to prepare ground operations. Policy may have played second fiddle in the campaign, but Martin’s pack drill will hugely influence the upcoming negotiations to government.

Insisting the Dail consider reform before forming a government undermines FG’s ability to set its own new agenda. Whilst abolition of Irish Water is a deal breaker for Fine Gael, it is also a convergent issue for a majority of the new Dail, including Sinn Fein.

Expect the best boys and best girls who did do their homework – whilst other kids spent most of their free time out ‘rioting’ in the street – to broaden the debate, and as Gerard Howlin puts it “to engage with all prepared to talk to it about shared policy objectives”.

For now, realignment and engagement is the name of Fianna Fail’s game. A quick return to the country would be precipitous, and only result in small changes up or down.  For now, shifting the narrative frame around who can or cannot deliver change is the object.

Further ‘executions’ on the field of battle will have to wait.

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  • Gingray

    I like Martin, he has done fantastically well, and getting FF back so quickly after 2011 is a wonderful achievement, particularly as he has been undermined by the likes of Hanafin.

    But has he done enough to get the trust of the FG and independent voters who used to choose FF?

  • hovetwo

    FG borrowed some of the core FF vote last time. They started to drift back in the local elections, when it was clear that FG had to run the same austerity playbook.

    In truth, there was little to separate the parties in the manifesto spending commitments for 2002 and 2007, when (almost) everyone talked about a soft landing despite the obvious risk of relying on property transaction taxes to pay nurse’s salaries.

    The angrier voters went down the Independent line. Martin seems to be extraordinarily hard working, going door to door in every constituency around the country in the last couple of elections. If he reels back the Independents it will be on a constituency by constituency basis.

  • ted hagan

    The electorate never learns. From the hope engendered by the 2011 election and the chance for change to revert to this. Two centre right parties calling the shots with the left hardly in sight. Yes there are independents, and yes there is SF, but it’s a ragbag army. All the talk of a watershed election is nonsense, it’s same old, same old and normal corrupt, and incompetent; service resumed. The two main parties are incapable of change.

  • ted hagan

    Trust in Irish politics? You have got to be kidding.

  • Robin Keogh

    It also emerges in a tricky situation regarding the formation of a government. Its clear from the numbers that neither FG or FF can cobble together a stable government with the plethora of smaller parties and independents. If FG are clever here; after a period of reflection they could offer full partnership to FF “for the good of the country” etc. If FF refuse and another election is forced, the result might not swing in their favour and could offer FG a second chance to refine their message with a new leader like Varadker. Fianna Fail did well but we have to be realistic also. The party are still struggling in Dublin and overall they only managed to collect 5 of the available 25 point drop in government support. Also their transfer toxicity is a problem too, they got a ten percent seat bonus, similar to SInn Fein with their total vote stuck at 2014 local election levels. FF refusing to deal with FG in the hope if continuing its recovery might be a gamble; health crises, water issue, homeless and housing emergency hasnt gone away you know.

  • Discuscutter

    Agreed. FG should say they will agree to a rotating Taoiseach and will be willing to do the dirty for the sake of the country.

    FF will be reluctant as it will not suit them, where as unstable Govt. that would be bad for the country would benefit them in the polls.

    They have to be exposed on that, will FG do so.

    They could have leveled and destroyed Micheal Martin and many in FF if they had wanted to but its leadership was scared it would help SF too much.

    Now the morons in FG’s backoffice and leadership are fighting for the party’s long term survival. Who ever comes out on top of those 2 after the next election will take a chunk of vote off the other and reduce them to a smaller party.

  • The party was coming from such a low base into this election, so some sort of gains were inevitable. That turned out to be 24 more TDs, 131,998 extra voters and a 6.8% increase in vote share.

    Going from 20 TDs, 387,358 first preference votes, a 17.5% v/s in 2011, to 44 TDs, 519,356 fpv., and a 24.3% v/s in 5 years is clearly progress.

    However, the party is still a shadow of its former electoral self. The “nationwide stampede” as Saturday’s Irish Times described was Fianna Fáil’s second worst ever Dáil election result as a party.

    Fianna Fáil still has the task of whether it can ever redeem itself to the electoral dominance it once held from 1932 to 2011, 39.1% in 1992 being its lowest v/s during this period. There is still some 339,209 voters from 2007 who chose not to return to the Fianna Fáil fold on Friday.

    I’ll be interested to see how the party’s fortunes play out over the 32nd Dáil term.

  • Lionel Hutz

    All FF have to say in response is that they went to the electorate with a promise not to go into government with fine Gael and to present an alternative government.

    Many are salivating over the possibility of this would be coalition but they don’t have to do it and they have started control the post election narrative. To push for Dail reform is smart because it can’t be said to be for simple self interest.

    It’s been a great election from FF. It doesn’t matter if they still haven’t recovered to 2007 levels. They are back in business and today certainly sounded like the most important political party in Ireland. Got to take your hat of to that

  • Skibo

    Yet when SF say they will not go into government with FF or FG they are castigated and accused of not being prepared to take power. Prepared only to sit on the sideline and condemn. The sidelines are very congested at the moment but only SF are being accused.

  • mickfealty

    Abolition of Irish Water is a deal breaker. Fine Gael cannot agree to that, and FF have a well argued and consistent logic as to why they want it to happen.

    Also, they have consistently said Enda must go before any deal will stick. Now, there are some who would love that, but if you give over your leader as a concession you are already man down before you begin.

    So unless FG have a death wish, or they can string out their provisional administration until the summer then heave over the off months, I don’t see their room for manoeuvre.

    Dublin is a problem. A big one.

    FF would dearly have loved the combative McAuliffe in, and Catherine Ardagh in South Central as a bonus. But where they had nothing before they now have a Dail team to be supplemented from a Seanad team of 15-16.

    Watch Jim O’Callaghan. He’s already media ready and will pitch in at a level well above the capacity of the interim team. These changes are not passive additions of what was left after 2011. In some cases they are multiplications.

    Their real issue is how do they become an aspirational brand again after what they caused to happen to the generations under 35?

    It’s tough prospect, but then so was doubling the 11 team.

  • Lionel Hutz

    Well what Sinn Fein said is tantamount to saying they would not be going into government. It is probably fair therefore to point out that they only intended to go into opposition.

  • Jack Stone

    Do you know how easy that would be to flip flop on if they had the numbers (they are short even if they can get some of the smaller parties to play along) all they would need is to get Fianna Fail to agree to “progressive government principles” in a “nationalist unity government” to “transform Ireland” . So they said they intended to stay in the opposition but Fianna Fail’s commitment to these principles means that Sinn Fein will support them BUT they will not be a sop for government and if Fianna Fail doesnt hold true then … yaddayaddayadda Its traditional politics.