Fianna Fail-Could they bounce back at the next election?

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.

Narrative

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.

Differentiation

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.

Believe

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.

Concluding thoughts

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.

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  • Steve Larson

    If you ask 5 FF members their views on an issue, you will often get 5 different ones, many of them completely opposing – There is no clear shared platform bar loyalty to FF. Clear platform will drive many members out.

    As for owning the past, what members, elected reps I have see n firmly believe that the 2012 speech closed the door on the past, there will be no more apologies or healing around that.

    FF’s problem is that it does not appeal to those under 55, its membership is mostly grey, the hunger to rebuild does not seem to be there, on the ground.

    In Dublin the party doesn’t really exist in any meaningful way.

    FF also look like they will be running too many candidates, again in many places. As the battle to stop people going independent in a huff.

  • Gingray

    David, are Fianna Fail still planning on standing in the north by 2019? I don’t know if they would get my vote but I think their entry would shake things up fantastically on the nationalist side.

  • Spike

    Its a strange position for FF – every time they stick their necks out too far they get blasted. I believe they will plateau in this next election and will rise slowly after it. SF still too toxic for wavering FF voters though improving. FG will waltz the next election unfortunately…and I mean unfortunately as I cannot fathom how anyone can trust them. FF have to lick their wounds for another couple of years but then they will be back – but only if the country is in better economic shape.