Fianna Fail, the natural governing party of Ireland. One of the most successful parties in Europe, second only to the Swedish Social Democrats for both electoral success and length of time in power. All of this changed in 2011 as the party suffered a heavy defeat following three years of recession and austerity.
With the exception of 2013, the party has polled at around 19-23% and in the local elections they won more councillors than any other party in the state. However with troubles in Europe with Brian Crowley and the departure of Averil Power last month there are still some storm clouds ahead for the party.
How can Fianna Fail aim to return to its former status as the main party in Irish politics?
Own the past
Yes, you heard me. Fianna Fail cannot afford to just forget its last 14 year period of government. If the party stops even talking about what happened in the Ahern/Cowen years it allows the current government and Sinn Fein to set the narrative about the party in government, as well as, basically saying the entire period was a disaster. It may not be popular to say but the last government did do some positive things, the Good Friday Agreement, improvements in infrastructure and foreign direct investment comes to mind.
Micheal Martin at the 2012 Ard Fheis made the important first step of owning the negatives by apologising for the mistakes of the previous government and he took the big step of recommending the expulsion of Bertie Ahern following the Mahon report. However, he needs to be able the draw out the strengths of the previous government. For example, when the Irish government did very little to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement or the 20th anniversary of the Downing Street Declaration, why did the party not hold its own event and put it up in lights that this what a Fianna Fail government can achieve?
To move on from the past, Fianna Fail needs to own it. If you cannot own your record and speak up for it, why on earth should a punter in 2016 vote for the party to return? For Fianna Fail to move forward it needs to deal with the past first.
The first point links into the second. The party has many policy papers and private members bills that it has published. However, all of this needs to be part of a bigger picture. What is the point of the party? Martin obviously is somebody firmly based on the centre-left of Irish politics, but this needs to be forged into a narrative of where he wants to take the country and how a Fianna Fail government will govern.
Martin believes in using government as an instrument of change and enabler of progress. He needs to identify 3 proposals that he can take to electorate to illustrate a governing philosophy. There is no point getting bogged down in detail and pulling out policy papers left, right and centre. Irish people are very practical, take three big ticket plans and spend the next few months explaining them and keep doing it.
Now you have a governing philosophy they key thing is how to make this a product for that the Irish electorate will want to buy into. Whenever I make trips down South I get the sense that after years of austerity and economic turmoil, the Irish people want a period of calm.
On the opposition benches you have parties pledging more radical change. But, I think people want a period of being relaxed. Whilst Sinn Fein is running head first to become another Syriza, Martin must become a John Major like figure promising a government of no surprises, which essentially under promises and over delivers.
Fianna Fail must pose these questions to the Irish people; do you want more of the same unequal recovery under Fine Gael and Labour? Or do you want essentially class warfare from Sinn Fein?
The tagline must be that “there is a better way to recovery, a steady way and a responsible way under Fianna Fail.”
It’s about managing the recovery, stupid!
Fianna Fail can gain traction in a general election but only if the debate is about sharing resources and enhancing prosperity in a growth environment. If the general election becomes a referendum on the financial crisis, Fine Gael win and if it becomes about austerity, Sinn Fein will gain traction. Martin needs to keep himself relevant by fighting the election with Enda Kenny on who can manage the recovery. This largely side lines the other opposition parties and makes it a contest between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael for power.
Enda Kenny’s strategy will be to side-line Fianna Fail and make it a contest with Sinn Fein. Gerry Adams strategy will be to make the election about austerity and corruption. Martin needs to break out of the box with some key proposals about enhancing the recovery and make it a debate about that issue in order to stay relevant and fight the campaign on his terms.
If you don’t state your beliefs with conviction, you will never convince voters. There is a degree of timidity around Fianna Fail that has not totally gone away since 2011. The party needs to be unapologetic in stating its aims. Starting with the parliamentary party, there can be no hesitation in saying “the next Fianna Fail led government will definitively…..” and in a coalition negotiation “x policy is red line for us.”
Setting out these clear lines of departure will for sure alienate some people, but they will help energise and give some conviction for party members to go out and fight during the election. There is nothing worse than a wishey, washey politician. Develop a plan, stick to it and defend the hell out of it.
Like my piece on Sinn Fein none of this is definitive and there are real challenges for the party. Yet, for Fianna Fail there is a real opportunity for growth and rebalancing of the party. If the right calls are made and party fights the election in a new way, it could not only regain certain sections of the electorate but win over new voters as well. The one benefit with the old certainties being gone is that you can essentially throw the rule book out the window.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs