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Column: Amid rising popularity, Fianna Fáil may just be relevant again

Fianna Fáil’s poll bounce isn’t a definitive comeback – but we shouldn’t write them off, writes Gary Murphy.

Gary Murphy

A MAJOR PART of the astonishment over the result of the 2011 general election was due to the collapse of the Fianna Fáil vote. Although heralded by the opinion polls, it still came as a significant surprise. Fianna Fáil, the so-called natural party of Irish government, the party that had dominated the state since it first took office in 1932, was reduced to 17 per cent of the first preference vote and 20 seats out of 166 in the mother of all Irish electoral defeats.

Such a result was something that no sane observer of Irish politics could ever have predicted. Only a few short years earlier Bertie Ahern led the party to its third general election victory in a row in 2007. For many within the party itself the looming electoral disaster was something that could not be countenanced, with the view that surely things would get better.

There can be no doubt that the scale of the defeat shocked Fianna Fáil to the core. Notwithstanding the party’s dismal showing in the polls prior to the election there continued to be a belief held within Fianna Fáil that the quirks of the Irish electoral system would save it. Its new leader Micheál Martin predicting that the party would be represented in every constituency, that the numbers could not be that bad and that local factors would save a decent number of TDs.

Staggering loss

When the counting was done, however, the Fianna Fáil losses were staggering. A loss of 58 seats from 78 in 2007 to 20 in 2011. A drop in first preferences in percentage terms from 41.6 in 2007 to 17.4 per cent in 2011.

That Fianna Fáil could gain over 380,000 first preference votes on the back of presiding over the worst economic crisis in the history of the state, and that it could attract such support despite its negative reputation on issues of trust and competency says something about its resilience.

As we face into the second anniversary of its routing at the 2011 general election Fianna Fáil stands at 21 and 22 per cent in the opinion polls and given increasing dissatisfaction with the Government, it will clearly hope to garner more substantial support as the year progresses. Its decision not to run a candidate in the presidential election of October 2011 seems ever more vindicated and supporters of the party are becoming more vocal on the airwaves.

Thus the question arises: are the political zombies back from the dead?

A classically populist party since its foundation in 1926 Fianna Fáil was able to draw support from all sections of the population. Small and large farmers alike, businessmen, including developers and bankers alike, the skilled artisan middle class, the manual working class, labourers, and the unemployed – all saw Fianna Fáil as a party that could represent them and their ambitions. That it consistently took over 40 per cent of the vote at general election time was testament to this remarkable chameleon-like ability to attract support from all groups and social classes.

Losing their way

Micheál Martin has claimed that the party lost its way in recent years by forgetting its radical roots, and that it can recover both its zeal and purpose by returning to the original progressive policies of Eamon de Valera and Seán Lemass – although he does not really tell us what these are in the Ireland of 2013.  It also does not help that he continues to insist that Fianna Fáil lost its way under Bertie Ahern by failing to challenge the consensus.

This seems to miss the pretty important point that Fianna Fáil created the self-same consensus through its commitment to a heady but fatal concoction of a low taxation base, high public spending including a throw money at whatever the problem is approach, and an astonishingly lax regulatory framework for the banking system. We can’t blame Fianna Fáil alone for this. After all it was the Labour Party who in the 2007 general election campaign wanted to spend even more while taxing even less.

Fianna Fáil has a long and proud history and a lot of achievements to its credit. From de Valera’s 1937 Constitution to Lemass’s opening up of the economy, and entry into the EEC under Jack Lynch it has embraced an outward-looking Ireland that has stood the country in good stead. Its commitment to social partnership also provided the state with macroeconomic stability in the years from 1987 to 2007. It is unthinkable to look at the ending of the troubles in Northern Ireland without marvelling at the role that Bertie Ahern, for all his other troubles, played in bringing such a situation about.

Thrown out

Fianna Fáil faces a long and arduous task back to making itself a party of power once again. Comparisons between Fianna Fáil’s meltdown in 2011 and Fine Gael’s collapse in 2002 seem to me to be misplaced. Fianna Fáil was basically thrown out of office by an angry and vengeful electorate who felt deceived by the party’s 2007 promises of continued economic success. The problem for Fine Gael in 2002 was one of continuing to make themselves relevant in an era where it seemed Fianna Fáil would be in perpetual government given their successful embracement of coalition politics.

In comparison to Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil in 2011 fell much further from much higher – and most crucially of all, from in government. Its reputation for economic competence and good government is to all intents and purposes ruined and the idea of them getting back anytime soon to the days of polling over 40 per cent of the first preference vote seem rather ludicrous and fanciful in the extreme. Moreover it cannot easily distance itself from the mistakes of its time in government when its current leader sat at the cabinet table from 1997 to 2011.

One feature of the Irish party system that Fianna Fáil has going for it is that party loyalism is declining amongst voters. If the 2011 general election told us anything it was that the old ties that bound citizens to Fianna Fáil in particular, and Fine Gael to a lesser extent, are gone.

Party politics in Ireland is fragmenting and there is thus an opportunity for Fianna Fáil to present itself in a different guise to the electorate.

Polls

We should be careful though about opinion polls when the current government is less than two years in office. Prior to the bank guarantee scheme of September 2008 Fianna Fáil was in the 40 per cent range in opinion polls. Once that fateful decision was made and its consequences soon became clear Fianna Fáil went into freefall.

The politics of austerity currently spells extremely bad news for the government and particularly the Labour party. But there is no sign of any fissure in the government that would lead to a collapse of the coalition. In politics events still matter and who knows what a deal on bank debt for instance might do for the government’s popularity?

Fianna Fáil ended 2012 well by creeping over 20 per cent in the polls. The first poll of the new year gives them 21 per cent. But as this is but only four points more than it received in 2011 it’s not time to open the champagne just yet. Still, Fianna Fáil is relevant in Irish politics again and after the general election of 2011 that in itself is worth shouting about for the soldiers of destiny.

Gary Murphy is Associate Professor of Politics and Head of the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University. For more articles by Gary Murphy click here.

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