7 thoughts from the Ard Fheis as Fianna Fáil begins to “spread out but stick together…”

YouTube video

I was a guest of Fianna Fáil at the Ard Fheis in Dublin this weekend, specifically to talk about the recent disastrous Tory campaign and to describe how Labour was able to brigade its new ecclesia towards one unlikely victory.

In summary, here are seven loosely connected overall impressions from Saturday:

  1. What’s changed since 2013? No protesters chanting outside the RDS, no rounding up anyone vaguely under 30 for a photo op to see off Internet ribbing about a pensioner’s paradise. Older delegates still predominate, but the next most populous were the 18-35-year-olds. Fianna Fáil offers them what they’re not getting elsewhere: political mobility.
  2. Seeking lessons from UK Labour‘s mass mobilisation suggests two things: one, they understand that a campaign which speaks meaningfully and responsively to young people can bring them out to vote in significant numbers; and two old methods unsupported by digital are unlikely to create the sort of exponential growth they will need to win.
  3. The speech was full of hints at policy fights to come. Policy matters in Irish politics much more than most journalists imagine. As prosperity returns, material actions appeal to voters more than too angry protests or too airy promises. This suits both FF and FG, as they both have the capacity to develop policy, in a way the smaller parties plainly don’t.
  4. Northern Ireland barely featured* beyond a back of the hand swipe at the DUP and Sinn Fein: “get back to doing what they were elected to do and still being paid to do”. His focus was the “out-of-touch elite”, Irish Tory Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Not Civil War politics so much as a warming reminder to the faithful of why they all chose Fianna Fáil.
  5. The phoney war has only begun:  a full-blown battle may come within a year and 18 months. Sticky territory, not least for the smaller parties, who have consistently underestimated the power inherent in Martin’s controlled ascent. Fianna Fáil has recovered because his biggest battles were with highly ambitious (and impatient) internal rivals.
  6. The mood was positive if not buzzing. The confidence and supply arrangement with FG puts them in an odd place – if nothing like the darkness of four years ago. There’s much heavy lifting still needed to get into government. With the final budget just a year away, this was Martin’s notice of coming (rather than impending) mobilisation.
  7. That controlled ascent has been built on: the early realisation of the damage done; attention to the sourcing of new reps; and an understanding that taking power (under STV PR) requires the renewal and continued maintenance of a broad support base. To paraphrase the great Rugby captain, Ciaran FitzGerald: Spread out, but stick together.

NB – The subject of Northern Ireland was not a notable feature – even if the larger presence of northerners was – but I have expanded upon it in the video above…

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