Michael Martin is a capable, hardworking politician. Martin is not a complacent politician. He knew despite May’s good local election results that a significant job of work was still to be done. He has not risen to such lofty political heights because he is a man prone to fits of panic.
His party’s members are. Throughout Saturday morning scores of Fianna Fáil party activists and workers phones received a similar message ‘Roscommon SL -we are f**cked- no future?!’.
Indeed, anyone monitoring social media on Saturday or Sunday would have been forgiven for thinking that the party had been beaten into last place in both bye-elections.
Saturday was a bad day for Fianna Fáil. Dublin South-West showed the party is isolated from working class Dublin and has not regained the trust of middle class Dubliners. Roscommon- South Leitrim illustrated that the party’s once vice like grip on its political heartland, never mind Ireland, has slipped.
Both results highlights the party need to formulate and articulate policy positions on Ireland’s relationship with the European Union, water charges, social housing, welfare and youth unemployment. The party’s tried and trusted ‘sure aren’t the blueshirts worse’ style of opposition politics will not work in the future.
Micheal Martin to his credit has tried to take a more principled approach to opposition but his hard work has been undermined by a weak front bench and a lack of policies. Martin and his TD’s have been too quick to buy into the Government’s line.
I challenge any TD, from any party, to go into Ballyfermot, Ballina or Bandon and campaign on this great economic recovery. They wouldn’t get very far. The economy may be recovering but it’s not being felt by the electorate. Fianna Fáil needs to stop using the language of the Government.
Despite this there are some positives for Fianna Fáil.
Sloppy Fine Gael
Despite being in government when the EU/IMF left town Fine Gael are not ‘flavour of the month’ with electorate. The party had a poor local election masked only by holding its own in the European Elections. Last week’s bye-elections results offers further evidence of the electorate’s unease with Fine Gael.
Likewise the Garda Ombudsman and McNulty scandals prove that Fine Gael is more than capable of making unforced errors. These unforced errors have ensured that the party has lost some its sheen with the electorate and should offer some hope of a 50/50 election 2015/16 to Fianna Fáil.
Dublin South-West should have been a straight forward win for Sinn Fein. The failure to take the seat was a body blow for the party. It showed the polls were overstating their support and new challengers were emerging for their anti –establishment crown.
The party was skewered by Paul Murphy on water charges. Murphy challenged Sinn Fein relentlessly and succeeded in convincing voters that Sinn Fein was soft on water charges. The party’s inability to clarify the water charges issue over the last week is more worrying for them and raises serious doubts about Adams’ leadership.
A good minor team
There are parallels between Fianna Fáil now and the Galway hurling team of ten years ago. Like Galway of yore, Fianna Fáil is reasonably competitive but the real talent is hidden in its youthful minors. Jason O’Mahony (read his blog- it’s excellent) highlights ‘Averil Power, Paul McAuliffe, James Lawless and Malcolm Byrne’ as thoughtful legislators. I would add Councillor Naoise Ó Cearúil and General Election hopeful Paul Anthony Ward to the list of ones to watch.
A willingness to do business with any party or cohort of individuals kept Fianna Fáil in Government during the last twenty years. This pragmatism means the party is likely to return to Government in the foreseeable future. Micheal Martin may well rule out Sinn Fein but if the numbers are there after the general election then Fianna Fáil will sit down with Adams and co.
Likewise, it is not impossible to imagine Fianna Fáil and Labour, numbers providing, sitting down to a deal. Labour seem to be Martin’s favoured option but Fianna Fáil’s inherent pragmatism means Sinn Fein and even Fine Gael can’t be ruled out.
It may sound laughable but some political parties are terrified of power. Fianna Fáil exists to be in Government. It is their raison d’etre. This is a quality that attracts many people to the party. This lust for power is regularly disparaged by many but young guns such as James Lawless and Paul Anthony Ward want to use this power to implement legislative and societal change.
Fianna Fáil is not afraid of Government and this offers them a wide pool of candidates and a route back to power.
The positives are encouraging but equally the negatives are glaring and need to be addressed. The party needs to raise its political performance levels. Their response to Tuesday’s budget was laughable when compared to Sinn Fein.
The party’s PR and online machine is virtually non-existent. The party pushed Michael McGrath’s budget response via social media but it was an unedited thirty minute clip with no link to the party’s alternative budget at the end.
Do they really expect people to sit through a thirty minute video of Michael McGrath in the Dáil? Surely they employ someone who could have condensed his key points into a two or three minute clip.
Equally, the party is doomed to a long spell in opposition if it continues to mimic the language of the Government. Populist opposition is bad but nor is casual acquiescence good for politics or the Irish people.
This problem is further exacerbated by policies that point to nothing more than a ‘diet’ Fine Gael Government if they are returned to power. Fianna Fáil needs to define itself to succeed and it needs to do so urgently.
This does not mean a swing to the left or right but they need to develop a policy platform that shows where they want to take Ireland. They have the youth. They have the leader. They are running out of time.