Such a simple word, yet if we could sum up this election, it really was about change, not just for its own sake but ambitious change.
A sense that the country was heading in the wrong direction and despite record growth rates, a large section of the electorate opted to take a punt. Fed up of paying high rents, having their children living with them and the cost of everything rising, they looked at who embodied that ambitious change and voted accordingly.
Unquestionably, that change was Sinn Fein. Led by Mary Lou McDonald, who just a few months ago looked like a captain of a sinking ship across the island, has now been given a new lease of political life. It’s not easy to pull the nose of an air plane up when it’s in free fall, only a select number of leaders have done so in the past. I am thinking about people like Bertie Ahern and Enda Kenny, who managed to turn a campaign around.
Aided by an able front bench, namely Pearse Doherty, Eoin Ó Broin & Louise O’Reilly they dominated the debates around the three central issues of the election. They also benefited in many respects from their team in the North, going back into government. That ended the double abstentionist attack that proved so damaging in many areas in 2019.
On his first day as leader of Fianna Fail, Charles Haughey was asked did he see any problems managing a big parliamentary party of 82 members, to which he replied “I see 81 problems.” More representatives can cause problems for a party, in terms of managing personalities and including the right people at the right time. Don’t get me wrong, this is a problem the other party leaders wish they had today.
Sinn Fein’s rise took all of us by surprise. This is a project that many have spent their entire adult lives working on. The Sinn Fein I grew up with were a growing party in the North and marginal in the South. Now they hold representatives in every single city on the island, except for Lisburn.
They are also a changing party. There is a narrative that Sinn Fein are deeply ideological, but go back to their manifestos from the late 1990s and early 2000s. This is a party that has moved and I predict will continue to do so. The republican ideology mixed with centre left values will be the glue that keeps a broad church together.
Now they are truly a prime time party across the island. This is the mandate moment for the party, now they have to deliver. They need to show that Sinn Fein are the change choice but also a dependable one. In 1932, Irish people did something similar by electing a Fianna Fail government. Just 10 years before this, the founders of that party were opposing the foundation of the state, but fed up after 10 years of government from the pro-treaty side they wanted to take independence to a higher level and not have a business as usual government.
If I were a Sinn Fein TD, I would be looking back at that early Fianna Fail government to see how they used that first start to become the leading party of the state for decades. The former Sinn Fein president, Eamon deValera still has lessons to teach modern Irish leaders.
Soldiers of Destiny
This leads me on to Dev’s creation, Fianna Fail. After 9 years in opposition the party finds itself in retreat again. Losing a number of high profile seats and missing out on key targets elsewhere. There is little comfort for the party in this result.
The party and not just the leadership need to take stock about why it’s still failing to connect with voters. For me, the party lacked any big ticket items to sell or any ambitious change for the electorate. Fianna Fail essentially suffered the same fate as the Canadian NDP in 2015. The leader and party played it safe and was outflanked by a young Justin Trudeau who broke out of the political box and surged.
Sinn Fein also had people to rely on other than the leader. Once upon a time, Fianna Fail had these people too. In 2007, the campaign was helped hugely by people like Brian Cowen and Dermot Ahern. Even the dominant Charles Haughey had Ray MacSharry, Brian Lenihan and Albert Reynolds. Lynch had George Colley and Des O’Malley. Lemass had Frank Aiken, Patrick Hillery and Donogh O’Malley. In this campaign, it was just Micheal Martin.
People will say plenty about Fianna Fail governments, but look around the country and most of the big nation building projects were signed off under Fianna Fail. This narrative of a Big Ireland, with big ideas for the future, seemed to be absent from this campaign. Those clothes were taken by Sinn Fein.
There is no law that says legacy parties of the crash must be consigned to history. I look at Iceland, Greece, Japan and Canada which saw their respective legacy parties suffer heavy defeats and now are back leading their respective governments.
Fianna Fail cannot simply wait for Sinn Fein to screw up, this idea that they don’t know what they’re doing or how they can govern is something that the party needs to shake itself out of very quickly. Such complacency dominated the SDLP in the early 2000s and underestimating Sinn Fein is something that the party has done enough of. Using old and worn out attacks on their past, yielded nothing for the party and again going back to history, there were lessons to be learned from Fianna Fail’s own experience of being on the receiving end of such attacks. You cannot demand they serve in government in Northern Ireland and say no to them in the South.
The party needs to stop isolating Sinn Fein and in some respects obsessing about them. When you’re focusing on what another party is doing, you’re not focusing on what you’re doing. For many voters a Rubicon has been crossed in this election and it will take a lot of time for any party to win them back from Sinn Fein.
I know there is chatter about a coalition with Sinn Fein. For Fianna Fail right now, they need another period in opposition. There are far reaching questions that need to be looked at and a re-positioning of the party in this new political spectrum. All of this talk about a potential coalition has all of the hallmarks of Reynolds and Spring 2.0. A coalition of little trust or coherence will never last the full term. When it came into office all the talk was of “partnership government” and enhanced roles for Labour, but none of it amounted to anything.
Few will thank Fianna Fail for entering into it. That’s before you even get to who serves as Taoiseach and in the key portfolios. Sinn Fein will not settle for a second place status and with their support why should they.
There is no law that says Fianna Fail have to languish in the low 20s, equally there is no law that says Sinn Fein have to be one term wonders. Equally this election showed that the past really is a foreign country and Sinn Fein did things differently there. Yet for Fianna Fail, the past is like an albatross around the neck of the party as Martin spent precious debating minutes defending his record from 15 years ago.
I am more than a 1,000 word in and have not mentioned Fine Gael. Remember them? They’re still the government, but off the pitch and licking much bigger wounds than Fianna Fail. However, seeing this surge coming they’ve taken a step back, watched Fianna Fail representatives contradict one another over coalition with Sinn Fein and rule out another confidence and supply agreement. Such strategic brilliance leaves me wondering where all of this was during the campaign?
There are no easy options for Fianna Fail here, but some are worse than others. The party needs to drop its timidity about its past, recognise and claim its space in Irish politics and fight for its survival. Like 1932, how does this party plan to take independence to the next level. Ireland is a viable economic entity now, which the party can claim huge amounts of credit for, but to borrow the 2007 election slogan what are the next steps forward?
Sinn Fein have an end destination, a united Ireland with a more social democratic ethos. You can take it or leave it, but they have an end port of call to sail toward. That will sustain their brand no matter what the swings to or from them are.
Fianna Fail needs to find its end destination, which putting my Northern bias in here, has to include a united Ireland, but with a different emphasis. Being the bridge between the West and Dublin and a bridge between Unionism and Nationalism would be a good start. The fact that a year into the partnership with the SDLP it is still going nowhere is a testament to the failure of this halfway house approach.
Its immediate port is opposition. Not because of Sinn Fein, but because if the party is to be of some service for the country, it has to deal with these major issues internally. You cannot do this in government and ultimately its approach was rejected by the electorate. The party asked the electorate to keep the Fianna Fail recovery going and it got a decisive answer.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs