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'The brand isn't as strong as it once was': How will Fianna Fáil react to last week's by-election result?

Concerns within Fianna Fáil about the party’s future have grown following last week’s by-election but they are not new.

Taoiseach Micheal Martin during a visit to Dublin Zoo in April.
Taoiseach Micheal Martin during a visit to Dublin Zoo in April.
Image: PA Images

MICHEÁL MARTIN’S LEADERSHIP of Fianna Fáil has been placed in focus again following last week’s poor by-election performance, and there appears to be a consensus within the party that it at least needs to take stock.

Barry Cowen put his head above the parapet over the weekend to call for a special meeting following the “alarming” 4.6% result for Deirdre Conroy in Dublin Bay South. 

Even though the first-preference vote won by Conroy was the lowest-ever by the party in a Dáil election, much of the frustration from party members stems from the trend of the party’s support rather than this single result.

Cowen made reference to this in his letter to party members, stating that Fianna Fáil is “still awaiting the review of our dismal election in February 2020″. 

The Covid-19 pandemic is the likely reason for this review not taking place yet, but it is also a fortunate excuse for the party’s leadership. 

Fianna Fáil had expected to be in government after the 2020 general election, with predictions beforehand that they would win more than 50 seats. Instead they won 38.

Before any wider review, there is also a desire to have a parliamentary party meeting in person rather than the current Zoom-based format. 

Such a meeting could clear the air ahead of the summer recess which begins on Thursday.

Speaking to reporters yesterday, Martin did not rule out a face-to-face meeting of Fianna Fáil TDs and Senators but insisted it would not be this week.

“I’m very open to that. It won’t be this week for obvious reasons and I think we have to take stock of that but the party will discuss that,” he said. 

It may well be in Martin’s interest to slow everything down and hope that the recess leads to a cooling of heads. 

The fact that Marc MacSharry, a frequent critic of the Taoiseach’s leadership, expressed an eagerness that Martin resign “the sooner the better“ is perhaps an indication that those who want him gone feel that timing is important.

Rotating Taoiseach

It is also not insignificant that once December rolls around, it is only 12 months until the office of the Taoiseach ‘rotates’ into the possession of Fine Gael

This is unprecedented in Irish political history, and the handover was always going to bring about questions over Martin’s authority.

There have been other examples of this process at home and abroad. 

Once it was accepted that Tony Blair would not see out his third term as UK Prime Minister, questions about when Gordon Brown would take over became deafening.

A similar situation played out in Ireland during the previous government, when Enda Kenny accepted that he would not lead Fine Gael into another general election.

If, as is likely, Martin survives the summer, the question is not so much when he steps down as Taoiseach, but more what it means for his leadership of Fianna Fáil afterwards.  

Martin has said he intends to lead his party into the next general election, but others remain unconvinced about whether that is feasible. 

Potential successor

One potential successor, Jim O’Callaghan, cast doubt about whether Martin was the man to lead the party in the next election, saying over the weekend that it is something the party will “have to think about”

But as director of elections for the Dublin Bay South by-election, O’Callaghan does not escape undamaged. But that alone is not likely to derail his chances of taking over from Martin. 

For his part, O’Callaghan has said he wouldn’t support a no confidence motion in Martin, but timing could be a factor in that statement. 

Byelection Count 045 Fianna Fail's Jim O'Callaghan at the by-election count last week. Source: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

For wider grassroots Fianna Fáilers, questions over the leadership are not front and centre. Instead, questions over where the party sits in the political landscape are of more immediate importance.

Councillor Michael Clark of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown said that he canvassed for Conroy ahead of the recent by-election and did not detect a hatred of Fianna Fáil, but rather believed that the party was “irrelevant” to the campaign. 

“Sadly, it does confirm perhaps that the opinion polls for Fianna Fáil over the last year aren’t entirely off the mark,” he said.

“I think the Fianna Fáil brand isn’t as strong as it once was, we can’t just assume our voters will come out in droves because an election is on.”

Clark feels that the party is “at loggerheads” with their own voters and that they can’t catch them all under the same banner in the way the party used to:

Our voters are probably more left of centre on economics, more conservative of centre on social questions, they’re more green of centre on the national question, a United Ireland and so on. I’d also say our voters don’t favour lockdowns as much as other voters do. Nor perhaps are they happy with us coalescing with Fine Gael last year. 

He agrees that there should be a review of the 2020 general election performance but stresses that the focus must be on delivering in the ministerial portfolios the party holds. 

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As two of the most important issues facing the country, the health and housing briefs could be crucial to the overall success of the current government, and Fianna Fáil hold both roles. 

2024 local elections

Speaking as a councillor for the party that holds the most local authority seats, Clark says Fianna Fáil is strongest at local government level and that the party’s leadership must protect that.  

He points out that the next local elections aren’t scheduled to come for another three years, in mid-2024, very late into the current government’s term.  

I do have a concern that voters will use the 2024 local elections as a means to punish the government parties. I wouldn’t want to see a situation where councillors are the politicians that get hammered by the electorate just nine months before a general election.

Taoiseach Michael Martin Shared Island 00 Taoiseach Micheál Martin. Source: Julien Behal

So while there may be concern among some Fianna Fáil grassroots about how the party builds over the forthcoming couple of years, Martin himself has sought to take succour from those at local level who he says are supportive of the Programme for Government. 

“I’m very heartened by the feedback I’ve received from the members of the party, who voted overwhelmingly for Fianna Fáil to go into government,” he said yesterday, repeating how “heartened” he was a number of times. 

The Taoiseach of course knows that there are some within his party who were opposed to going into the government at all last year. Even among those who were in favour of the policies, there was scepticism about the coalition with Fine Gael. 

The ‘Fairer Future’ campaign within the party that campaigned against the Programme for Government may have lost the vote, but one campaigner told the The Journal yesterday that the reasons for the opposition remain. 

What has been frustrating for other party members is how satisfaction with the government in critical areas such as the vaccine roll-out hasn’t translated to improved support for Fianna Fáil. 

These concerns were outlined by Fianna Fáil TD James Lawless yesterday when speaking with RTÉ’s Claire Byrne. He said that the party “wasn’t connecting with people” despite approval of the government’s handling of the pandemic. 

Lawless said this disconnect needed to be looked at “next year” and that this must include looking at the leadership. 

“I think he’s uniquely positioned to lead us through this but looking at election 2024/2025, that would be a whole different ballgame.”

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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