“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.