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'Fianna Fáil is struggling with its identity, but we are up for the challenges ahead'

Malcolm Byrne says Confidence and Supply didn’t yield much for Fianna Fáil and there’s now understandable anxiety in the party about coalition with FG.

Malcolm Byrne

THE GENERAL ELECTION outcome was disappointing for Fianna Fáil and members across the country have been trying to come to terms with why it happened and where the party goes now.

There is anger – much of it directed at the failure to engage the organisation in policymaking and the poor national communication strategy employed during the campaign.

There is also support for the cross-party unity during the current crisis and a realisation that ultimately, a government must be formed. Among members, there is no great enthusiasm about entering into a power-sharing arrangement with Fine Gael, but there is an understanding that responsible political parties must step up to the plate.

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. In decades past, the party could work as a broad church, accommodating different views, while self-confidence was never in short supply. Those were the days where at least two in five voters backed the party and the strong ground campaign of Fianna Fáil was rarely bettered. With the more fractured political system, such as we have now, with less traditional party loyalties, new forms of campaigning – a traditional catch-all party was always going to struggle.

A new voter needs a new party

What is of particular concern is that Fianna Fáil’s voter base is ageing. It is strongest among the over 65s. It is portrayed by opponents (and some in the media) and seen by many younger voters as older and conservative.

In spite of strong door-to-door canvasses, Fianna Fáil generally fails to register on social media or communicate to those who consume their news in non-traditional forms.

I am fully braced for the barrage of negativity that will fill the comments section on this opinion piece.

0026 Leaders Debate The new political landscape: Pictured (L to R) Fianna Fail party leader Micheal Martin TD and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Sinn Fein party leader Mary Lou McDonald TD. Source: Leah Farrell

It is not that the party is not diverse – Fianna Fáil has the youngest TD in the Dail, James O’Connor, and many other younger representatives (the oldest of our seven councillors on Louth County Council, for example, is 43). The party has several councillors who identify from ethnic minority or LGBT backgrounds. More needs to be done on promoting women but the party of Constance Markievicz is more inclusive now than in the past.

The challenge is around where we stand. In spite of efforts to label otherwise, the majority of Fianna Fáil representatives and members would identify themselves as centrist or even a little centre-left. We believe in an open economy and the free market, but crucially, we believe that where that fails, the State needs to step in to support our citizens.

This drove the party’s commitment to investing in areas such as housing and education, often with radical policies, over the party’s history. Members are rightly proud of those achievements (from massive home building programmes to free second-level education, to expanding third level opportunities, to support for those with special needs).

90183515 Former Fianna Fáil Taoiseach Bertie Ahern greets then Taoiseach and Fianna Fail leader Brian Cowen at the opening of the Glasnevin Museum at Glasnevin Cemetery Dublin, 2010. Source: Leon Farrell/RollingNews.ie

Political identity

The party’s role in building our European Union membership and driving the Peace Process is really important to the organisation, though not shouted about as much as others. The smoking ban came into force 16 years ago, driven by a progressive Health Minister, Micheál Martin.

The party membership believes we have always stood for the ‘ordinary person’ and of being creative, even radical to provide opportunities. There is a fear, particularly at senior levels, of talking about the party’s proud history, because in bringing up the past, a focus will inevitably turn to the economic policies of the late noughties and the mistakes made then.

This fear has blunted the party’s radicalism. We need to campaign for the future, not for history.

There are very few in Fianna Fáil who would identify with the neoliberal policies that increasingly underpin Fine Gael philosophy. That and yes, history, make coalition-building difficult. Nor would much sympathy be found for the ‘woke liberalism’ of some of those on the high moral ground who claim to be of the left but are afraid of the responsibility of real decision-making.

Sinn Féin, a party formed in 1970, is resented for trying to steal Fianna Fáil’s Republican heritage and identity as well as being seen as opportunists who are anti-business. Fianna Fáil is pragmatic. That should be seen as a good skill in politics but in today’s divided world, is derided as not standing for anything.

00002074 Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis, 1990 with Brian Lenihan (L), then leader Charles Haughey and Maire Goeghegan Quinn. Source: RollingNews.ie

The Confidence and Supply Agreement entered into in 2016 was a responsible act but the view among members is that there was no electoral reward for this happening. There is a greater fear that coalition with Fine Gael, especially where Fianna Fáil does not clearly set out red lines in advance, will do further electoral damage.

A different party to some

An 18-year-old who voted in February’s election was born after the Good Friday Agreement and September 11th, 2001. They will have no memory of the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 though their teenage years would have seen Ireland’s economic recovery as well as the failure to tackle challenges in areas such as housing or health. For them, it is less the case that Fianna Fáil is toxic and more a question of the relevance of the party to the current debate.

This age cohort will face some of the biggest global challenges in history in the decade ahead – how we respond to the fallout of the Covid-19 crisis, climate change, and the rapid pace of technological transformation.

In addition, there will be challenges such as urbanisation and the sustainability of rural areas; food security; global migration; an ageing population. We will require a global and national set of responses and a combination of the State and enterprise to provide these. We may also be considering the shape of a new agreed Ireland, unifying North and South.

Before we enter into any government formation, Fianna Fáil needs to set out our red lines as to how we want to deliver on these as well as addressing existing challenges in our public services.

Dealing with the current public health crisis must continue to be the focus of our political system and public services for the coming weeks and months. An incoming government will face unprecedented challenges dealing with the fallout. People are scared. They are worried about losing loved ones, losing their jobs, their businesses.

eamon-de-valeradowning-street From the archives: Eamon De Valera, founder of Fianna Fáil on the steps of No. 10 Downing Street, London. Source: PA Archives

We need a radical strategy as to how to deal with the social and economic fallout of the Covid-19 crisis and the tough decisions that will be required, as well as how to address the other major challenges of the 2020s. Fianna Fáil members want to play their part but at the same time, ensure that the party does not lose our identity.

A new government in which Fianna Fáil will take part has to be one energised by Fianna Fáil values and policy, shaped by our membership, not simply one involving Fianna Fáil personnel. Mechanisms to ensure that happens will be vital.

Malcolm Byrne is a Fianna Fáil Senator.

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