What next for Fianna Fáil?

Friday 21 March 2014 16.57
This weekend's Ard Fheis will be the launch pad into the upcoming elections
This weekend's Ard Fheis will be the launch pad into the upcoming elections

By Brian Dowling, RTÉ Political Staff


The oft quoted remark by former Taoiseach and Fianna Fáil leader Seán Lemass – "A defeatist attitude now would surely lead to defeat – we can’t opt out of the future" – has a powerful resonance for the party these days.

As party members gather in Killarney for the 75th Ard Fheis, the future fate of the organisation remains an open question.

The roots of Fianna Fáil lie in a decision taken on 23 March 1926. That is 88 years ago this very weekend. Éamon de Valera, supported by Lemass and others, resigned from Sinn Féin on the issue of abstentionism in Dáil Éireann.

By April that year Fianna Fáil was born and went on to become the dominant political force in the land until 2011.

From the time it first entered government in 1932 until then it never had less than 66 Dáil members. On three occasions it had 81 TDs, and in 1977 it won a landslide victory with 84 Dáil seats.

The party returned 20 TDs in 2011, now 19 with the passing of the late Brian Lenihan. It has no TD in Dublin.

Historically, its combined periods in government amount to six decades since 1932, compared to some two decades for other coalitions, mostly comprising Fine Gael and Labour.

With over two years to the next General Election, where can Fianna Fáil realistically position itself on the political landscape?

Much of the focus since 2011 has understandably been on rebuilding the organisation, tackling its debts and pulling back from the edge of political extinction. The party has made considerable progress on those fronts under Michéal Martin’s leadership.

Its future is far from assured but the pall of gloom has lifted and morale has returned.

That, however, is scarcely enough. It is a foundation, but little more than that. Mr Martin has succeeded in convincing the party membership it has a future, but convincing the wider electorate is an altogether different proposition.

In 2011 it lost the trust of the voters.

In the 2007 General Election the party returned to office, after it sowed seeds of doubt in the minds of voters about a potential Fine Gael – Labour coalition.

With signs of some economic trouble ahead, the party challenged voters to consider whether they were ready to take a chance on a relatively inexperienced Cabinet team or stick with the party that had brought economic prosperity. The “trust us with the economy” message worked.

The economic and financial collapse that followed dealt a profound, near fatal blow, to that trust. Now, the very card that worked so well in 2007 for Fianna Fáil has become a potential trump card for the current Government.

If Fianna Fáil is to have any worthwhile political future it must surely be as a party of government or a potential party of government and to put itself in that position it has to persuade the voters that it can be trusted with the management of the economy. It may not be enough to simply be the main opposition party and rely on the old maxim that “oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them”.

The looming local elections will be the first major national test of where Fianna Fáil stands with the voters in 2014. The outcome will offer some pointers to where the party might stand come 2016. The party endured bad local elections in 2004 and 2009.

So this really is a crucial phase in the party’s journey back from the 2011 General Election. The party’s polling record has been solid and suggests support has been stabilised with potential for growth. But translating this into votes and winning seats is the challenge.

This weekend's Ard Fheis will be the launch pad into those elections.

Yes, we can expect a critique of the Government but more than that is needed. In his first Ard Fhéis as leader, Michéal Martin apologised for the mistakes of the last government. It went some way in healing those wounds. But mostly, it won back support from previously loyal party voters who deserted Fianna Fáil in 2011.

Regaining and consolidating that support is necessary but reaching beyond that base is the key to making the kind of breakthrough that would position the party as a credible partner in a future government.

But does he aspire to seeing Fianna Fáil in government after the 2016 General Election, and if so, on what terms? For most of its existence Fianna Fáil’s raison d’être has been to govern.

Yes, the voters ultimately decide who shares government.

But Mr Martin recently remarked that the country now needs Fianna Fáil more than ever before. It is approaching the time when he has to spell out why that is so, why the party is worthy of trust again on economic management and how that would translate into government.

If the party cannot opt out of the future it needs to start telling voters how it wants to shape it.