FF rebels should know there’s no home to return to, yet the journey ahead could be transformative

It’s interesting how Fianna Fáil has almost disappeared from the national consciousness in the Republic for much of the last five or six years. And despite being in office, not much gets into print about current Taoiseach Micheál Martin.

However, Theresa Reidy has written thoughtfully on what may lie ahead for a party that, historically, did not have to think about its profile, its image, trajectory and story (which was pretty much one with the story of government).

Fianna Fáil’s role as the lynchpin of the old system when other parties danced to its tune is long gone. Now it must compete in a crowded political environment with parties to the left and right of it with deep talent pools.

Being a ‘catch-all’ party offering a little bit of everything to many groups of voters is a much more difficult message to sell to an electorate that have lived through a global economic crash and a pandemic in the last decade.

As a northern outsider, I’ve always had to tread carefully when talking about southern politics, the reality of which has been shaped by dozens of events that most of us growing up in Northern Ireland never witnessed, or understood.

But Theresa’s description certainly holds a lot of water and its decline in numbers and in its breadth of support is something that’s been witnessed across European countries which use some form of PR in their electoral systems.

It was prompted by a recent think in which all the major southern parties hold as a near equivalent to the major UK parties’ conference season. FF’s was marred by negative comment from vocal opponents like John McGuinness.

The anti leader rebel TDs (aggravated by the fact Martin had told the party he was going to back Simon Coveney in SF’s vote of no confidence this week) protested but conformed, telling the press they did not want to lose the whip.

They want their votes to count when it come to deposing the leader perhaps as he steps down next year in favour of Leo Varadkar. This sentiment has been brewing for a few years now, but the heave never seems to come.

The simple answer as to why is that they don’t have the numbers. The less obvious one is that Martin is not really the dithering fool of the wider press caricature. This was significant and interesting in the IT leader column last week:

Despite his internal critics, Martin’s leadership is probably the best thing the party has going for it. He has grown into the role of Taoiseach and has held his nerve in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, the biggest challenge to face the country in decades.

In contrast with Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar, who is highly attentive to his own personal profile, Martin has shown a real commitment to the national interest and has not allowed himself to be overly distracted with the day to day controversies that dominate political life.

A big part of Fianna Fáil’s appeal down the years was the reputation it acquired for being able to run the country more efficiently than others. On Covid that quality has again been on display, by contrast to the Opposition which has offered opportunistic and contradictory solutions.

If Fianna Fáil can approach other big issues, such as housing and health, with the same urgency, voters might ultimately be persuaded that it does have a continuing role in Irish political life. Worryingly for it, however, that requires progress on problems that have so far proved intractable.

What Martin is up against is the short memories of newspaper men and women, or in some cases some rather longer, highly selective ones. News of 5000 jobs building a new Intel factory in Leixlip stayed firmly on the business pages.

Unlike his Fine Gael predecessor, he hasn’t tried to hide the fact that Brexit has still to drop its full payload of damage on the Republic (a defensive point that could have been made more forcibly by Varadkar in the negotiation stage).

It’s also not clear what Martin can do to win people over through a media among whom many are already salivating over the prospect of a SF Taoiseach. Tell better stories I would say as, to be fair, do some of his internal critics.

Good actions can come to speak more loudly over time, and much of the story Martin needs to tell must be of actions, not promises. Mostly he needs to put front door keys in the hands of those C1s and C2s who got burnt in the crash.

The more he does, the more votes he’ll take back from other parties, particularly SF who have gained a large chunk of FF’s former poor, working class (and right of centre) support which has been caravanning looking for a new home.

Strikingly no one in the Dublin press seems to have figured out that the PfG is almost exclusively a FF/GP joint production. Outside tax cuts (which are already being questioned) FG have not that much in it.

Even the coalition’s N/S strategy is FF’s, and whilst currently in the Taoiseach’s office there’s little scope to undo its five year programmes. The main drivers of policy change from the FG led coalition are in FF/GP run departments.

What the rebels seem not to have noticed, is that the PfG will continue after changeover. In the meantime some wishing the Dublin media are chasing opposition spokesmen for attack-lines on the government regardless of quality.

The poll bounce at the weekend suggests Martin may be quietly eclipsing Varadkar whose merry PR japes and habit of trying to upstage his successor appear to be getting himself rather than the Taoiseach in hot water.

Fire in government can reveal character (or lack of it) with the potential to anneal the raw metal of any party rising  to the occasion. Leo and Simon’s game playing (like offering jobs without asking the Taoiseach) have stopped working.

When Varadkar comes back into the top job, Martin’s game plan may be all he has to get them through. He may hope too that Martin has done something to fix the protocol, and the Republic’s impaired access to the GB market.

What some of the rebels yet have to discover is that there is no comfortable home to go back to. The seriousness of office is what Fianna Fáil has always needed to thrive, and after ten years out, the journey can be transformative.