Fianna Fail has to become about Big Ireland in order to have a future

A few days ago I wrote about Sinn Fein and the need for parts of the media to drop their obsession with Gerry Adams. Writing about a topic a bit closer to my own heart, Fianna Fail has some real challenges going into 2015.

Let’s recap, the party suffered an all merciful hiding at the last election losing 58 seats, falling from 41.6% to 17.4% in the popular vote and seeing many of its prospects for the future losing their seats.

Fast forward to this year and the party after some steady progress over the last two years finds itself in a difficult position as it sits on around 19% in the polls and is now consistently either tied with or polling behind Sinn Fein and Fine Gael.

The party did win the local elections, but the surge of Sinn Fein dominating the European result seemed to take some of the shine off the party’s 25.1% result.

So what is the problem?

Never was a truer word spoken in politics than when one of Tony Blair’s advisors told him, that Labour would always be secure in power as long as he could answer one key question “what’s the point of you?”

This is the central question facing the party at the moment.

Since the party’s foundation in 1926, the strength of the organisation lay in the fact that it was bridge between the West of Ireland and Dublin. Rural small farmers, big industrial titans and middle class battlers, all found something within Fianna Fail.

In short, Fianna Fail was the Late Late Show of Irish political parties; the party had something for everyone in the audience.

Then came along the economic crisis and the broad church that for years had sustained the party, fell apart under an economy that was in deep recession.

The current party you see today is what’s left.

For the party to properly rebound it needs to embrace the fact that it is now free from the shackles of the broad church.

The party needs to be brave enough to recognise that there are whole sections of the population, who might have voted for Fianna Fail in the past, which are never going to come back.

This could be seen as a burden or an opportunity. An opportunity to create a totally different political proposition within Irish politics

Under Bertie Ahern, many things in Irish politics became very minimalist. A lot of targeting and micro policy was developed in areas such as education, health, infrastructure and culture.

Essentially there was no big picture.

Fianna Fail in its past did engage in the parish pump part of Irish politics, but this was always secondary to the national picture. DeValera had the constitution, Lemass had free trade, Lynch had the EEC membership, Haughey had the IFSC and Reynolds had the infrastructure funds from Europe.

Behind each lay a vision to place another block on building an independent Irish state.

Fianna Fail needs to get back to this model. It must resist and fight against some of the parish pump temptations that it had succumbed to in the past.

Fianna Fail has to be about “Big Ireland”

Big Ireland has to be about big national projects that end western alienation, makes the midlands feel more connected and keeps Dublin strong, without making it the show in town on the island.

Projects like a National Broadband Network, Inter-city motorways connecting all major population centres in Ireland and many others like them can help create a narrative that is desperately lacking in Irish politics at the moment.

A future government cannot be about populism, gimmicks or tripping over camera cords in shopping centres. Rather discipline, method and delivery have to become the new watchwords of the party.

The example of Lemass shows that Irish people will go for the efficient technocrat model.

Promising a big picture, then delivering it is the future.

There is another important aspect of this of course. When I look at Sinn Fein and see their strength in parts of the island, I think they have a winning strategy.

Their willingness to alienate whole sections of the electorate is something that is actually incredibly clever, as it anchors the working class base that they want within the Sinn Fein fold. An entirely new breed of voter has discovered Sinn Fein over the past three years and my punt is that they won’t leave them anytime soon as they have been given a secure home.

They are one of the first parties to realise that the era of the parish pump is beginning to end as voters seek something new.

The big Ireland model that seeks to lead the debate and not please everybody is the way forward for Fianna Fail.

Could this fail? Of course, but the party is in third place, averaging 19% in the polls and is not being rewarded in the polls for any of its critiques against the government. We need to ask why?

The advantage of being third is that few people notice you. The leadership should be bold, brave and try something new.

Big picture, big policies geared towards creating a Big Ireland.

That’s the future, not the parish pumping of the past; otherwise what’s the point of you?

David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs