Local elections are acid test for Fianna Fáil

Thursday 25 April 2013 17.07
This year's Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis is likely to be a bit lower key than last year
This year's Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis is likely to be a bit lower key than last year

RTÉ Political Correspondent David McCullagh looks ahead to this weekend's Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis.

"The Local Elections in 2014 will be the most important in a generation." That line from the Clár for the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis this weekend tells a tale.

Given the impact local authorities actually have on our lives, it might be difficult to convince people that any local election at any time is particularly important. But for Fianna Fáil, the vote in just over a year's time is absolutely crucial.

For all the talk of renewal and rebuilding and recovery, based in the main on healthier poll ratings, the acid test for Fianna Fáil comes when voters actually put their ballot papers in the box.

While the party performed relatively well in the Meath East and Dublin West by-elections, they didn’t actually win. And Fianna Fáil in opposition hasn’t lost two by-elections in a row since 1976.

So the locals are a big deal for Fianna Fáil. The party needs a good result to show it is back in business.

You might think that’s not a problem, as they did so badly last time out they are bound to do better this time. Right? Wrong, actually, as a Fianna Fáil TD pointed out to me during the week. The 2009 result was seen as very poor. But compared to the 2011 general election, it wasn’t that bad.

Fianna Fáil got 25% of the vote in the local elections in 2009, and came in second. In the 2011 general election, the party came third, with just 17.4%.

So, it could conceivably improve on its general election performance, but still not reach the vote it won in 2009.

It could even lose local authority seats, though that seems a bit unlikely. Given current poll ratings of around 25% to 27%, a big increase in local authority seats is also a bit unlikely.

Of course, it’s not just about the number of seats, it’s about who wins the seats.

The Fianna Fáil leadership will be hoping to see a crop of new councillors, with a good gender balance, in position to challenge for Dáil seats next time out.

So expect to see lots of bright-ish, young-ish potential candidates hogging the television time on Saturday morning.

If there is controversy this year, it’s likely to be over abortion.

The party has been playing its cards close to its chest, refusing to state a position until it sees the shape of the Government’s legislation.

That’s not unreasonable in itself, and marks a change from Fianna Fáil of old, which would have gleefully increased the pressure on nervous Fine Gael backbenchers by adopting a hard line on the issue.

But a number of motions on the Clár seek to nail the Fianna Fáil position down, including one opposing legislating for abortion when there is a threat of suicide, and another calling for a referendum before such legislation is introduced.

The leadership’s handling of the issue – and the reaction of members – will be closely watched.

However, the timing of the debate, at 5pm on Saturday evening, means it will be somewhat overshadowed by the Leader’s speech later that evening (not to mention Munster’s Heineken Cup semi-final appearance!).

Overall, this year’s Ard Fheis is likely to be a bit lower key than last year.

Then, many Fianna Fáil activists made an extra effort to attend to prove the party wasn’t dead, at the first Ard Fheis since its general election disaster.

Even Bertie Ahern showed up, to the delight of many members who queued up to get his autograph.

The party leadership wasn’t quite as pleased to see him, and of course he has since resigned from the party, so he presumably won’t be at the RDS this year.

This year, Fianna Fáil members will be more confident that the party has a political future.

What sort of a future that is may be clearer next year, once those local election results are in.