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Taoiseach and Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin Sam Boal/
soldiers of destiny

State of the party: Where are Micheál Martin and Fianna Fáil heading into the Ard Fheis?

The party is set to meet in Dublin this weekend.

MICHEÁL MARTIN IS “very clear” about the identity of Fianna Fáil.

Speaking on a visit to Japan during the summer, he said he has been a member of the party for a “long time” and there’s no confusion.

“It is no big mystery to me the identity of Fianna Fáil and what it’s all about,” the Taoiseach said.

But while Martin said he doesn’t need schooling in what the party’s ambitions are, clearly there is a need for direction.

If there isn’t a change, one would have to question why Fianna Fáil TD James Lawless was tasked over the last year with leading an internal commission examining the party’s identity.

His report on the party’s “aims and objectives” was passed by the party’s Ard Chomhairle last week, and is due to be adopted at the Fianna Fáíl Ard fheis tomorrow.

Lawless has been on a fact-finding mission within the party over the past number of months, meeting every unit of Fianna Fáil across all constituencies to draft up a new mission statement for the party that will differentiate it from Fine Gael.

The document follows a damning review of the party’s 2020 general election performance, one that looked at what went wrong; it concluded that communications were a disaster.

It should be no surprise then that at this year’s Ard Fheis, there will be a special focus on communications and social media.

In the ‘Social Media Square’ of the RDS, where the Ard fheis is being held today and tomorrow, there are a number of seminars taking place for politicians who feel the need to brush up on what one segment describes as “being authentic online”. 

“Lights, Camera, Action”, another segment, seeks to teach politicians about mobile content, while another lesson on the agenda is: “Presenting to camera (using your phone) – simple tips to look and sound professional.”

TDs and senators can also learn how to “Reach, Engage, Influence” via social media training, as well as find where potential voters are in a segment called “The Social Media Players”.

The latter is a question some in the party might be asking in the future.

If Martin was in any doubt about Fianna Fáil’s identity concerns after the election, Senator Malcolm Byrne set them down in an op-ed for The Journal in 2020, stating that “the real challenge for the party is that we are struggling to clarify our identity and there is a fear that it may be lost in any new arrangement”. 

This does indeed appear to be something that many Fianna Fáil politicians believe has come about over the last two years. 

One Fianna Fáil senator said the party began to dig a hole for itself with the ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement agreed with Fine Gael after the 2016 general election, when Fianna Fáil facilitated a Fine Gael-led minority Government.

The senator pointed to how Fianna Fáil were hammered by the electorate for criticising their rival party’s policies while leading the opposition, only to abstain from actually having a say on some of those policies in crucial votes.

The coalescing of FF-FG in Government since 2020 has only solidified the public’s perception that the two parties are one and the same, they added.

PastedImage-14770 Fianna Fáil's homepage this weekend.

Lawless’ report therefore aimed to pull back the focus on a number of key pillars that the party believe should set them apart from the rest (including their oldest rivals): 

  • Unity
  • Rewarding Enterprise
  • Building the Future
  • Climate Action and Biodiversity
  • A Sustainable Island
  • Defending Our Democracy
  • Ireland in Europe and the World
  • Teanga, Dúchas and na hEalaíona 
  • Community and Meitheal
  • Strong Public Services 
  • Education
  • A Home For All

The section on Irish unity sets out the party’s ambition to “secure in peace and harmony the unity of Ireland and all its people” with an aim to “building consensus around a shared island”.

The document also states that Fianna Fáil will “always promote the Irish language”, and outlines the importance of promoting the arts. And it claims that Fianna Fáil is the party that will deliver universal healthcare, regardless of means.

But there is also a message that many members are keen to repeat: that Fianna Fáíl is the party of home-ownership.

The party says it will “champion the right to housing by providing quality affordable, public and private homes, protecting those renting and supporting those with an aspiration of home ownership” in the document.

Game over

Fianna Fáilers have for a long time known that if they fail to make progress with the housing crisis, it is game over for the party. 

Even the Taoiseach has cottoned on; while the message has been ‘supply, supply, supply’, many believe little has been done for those stuck in rental accommodation since Fianna Fáil has been in Government.

Yet these are the people of whom Fianna Fáil speak of allowing to own their own home one day.

Speaking during his parliamentary party meeting this week, Martin indicated that the rent credit announced in this week’s Budget was only the beginning:

As a party Fianna Fáil has delivered the renters tax credit which is now embedded and we have a platform to build on it from next year.

In the last government, through the confidence-and-supply arrangement between the two parties, Fianna Fáil was seen by many to be “propping up” Fine Gael – and along with it the Government party’s housing policies.

But with Fianna Fáil now the leading party in government, members believe they have to make their mark or they will suffer electoral disaster next time around. 

However, with the rotation of the role of Taoiseach and Tánaiste in December, there are concerns that the power shift could be detrimental over the remaining lifetime of the Government.

There are already a few whispers around Leinster House about the possibility of an election in the first quarter of 2023.

Navel gazing

Martin has always been quick to point out that the public hate when politicians engage in navel-gazing, telling reporters on a recent trip to New York that the key issue for him “is getting to knuckle down”, firstly with the budget and its cost-of-living package, and then on the housing crisis and a range of other issues. 

But although he may not like navel-gazing, there will be a lot of it at the RDS this weekend.

There will be plenty of chatter about where Fianna Fáil is going and who will lead it there, with more talk about what brief Martin might go for and what it might mean. 

Whether he can pull the troops together, bolster morale and lead from the front this weekend remains to be seen.

Those within the party say it will take more than a few social media classes to get the party’s message across. Sorting out the problems within is simply the first step.

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