Eoin O’Malley, 1 December, 2010
There is widespread and understandable expectation that Fianna Fáil will perform poorly in the next election. But in an earlier post Michael Gallagher points out that Fianna Fáil tends to bounce back from opposition into government. There is always a tendency to think ‘this time is different’, but this time, maybe it is.
First, Fianna Fáil will almost certainly not be the largest party. One of the reasons Fianna Fáil dominated was because it was the natural home for voters in the centre. If it is no longer the largest party those voters might see Fine Gael or Labour as an equally good home.
Fianna Fáil’s dominance and central position meant it was virtually certain to be the central plank of any government. Again now that it is possible to conceive of governments led by Fine Gael or Labour, these parties will do better.
In the past Fianna Fáil tended to share the blame for a recession with Labour and Fine Gael. So blame for the recessions in the 1950s and 1980s could not easily be pinned just on Fianna Fáil. Obviously if Fine Gael and Labour fail to give the impression that they are dealing with the economic crisis in a competent way Fianna Fáil may be able to exploit this and re-emerge, but it will still be just another party. And it won’t be able to rely on competence as a campaigning tool for at least a generation.
After this election financially the party will be depleted, as state funding will have halved and donations won’t be available. Getting good (read electable) candidates to run might be harder, and good ‘celebrity’ candidates will be willing to run for Labour and Fine Gael – look at Davy Fitzgerald in Clare.
Fianna Fáil could find itself in some constituencies without a TD. Despite the ‘legendary Fianna Fáil organisation’, much of it is based around active individual TDs. Without a TD the organisation could weaken dramatically. This election will also give Labour in particular a basis on which to build organisations in the future.
Fianna Fáil also has the problem that if it is reduced to 40 seats or less, the ‘wrong’ people might hold those seats. So Beverly Flynn might beat Dara Calleary, Micheál Martin could beat Michael McGrath, Mary Wallace might beat Thomas Byrne etc., and no new FF TDs may emerge from the election. If this were to happen the Fianna Fáil front bench could look decidely old and stale.
Nor have any younger TDs been given cabinet experience. There is no obvious leader one might choose if FF were to skip a generation. The remnants of the FF parliamentary party (if they choose a leader after the election, which is likely given the timing) may choose a leader who is associated with the current regime. Even Brian Lenihan, for a long time the great white hope of the party, is much too tainted to be a leader one would want to choose. This could limit Fianna Fáil’s potential for recovery.
So Fianna Fáil, unlike in the past, may be facing two Dála in opposition.
In this context it might be better for Fianna Fáil if a large number of its senior TDs do retire as this will at least allow for some new people to emerge. So in Louth, Dermot Ahern’s departure gives James Carroll a chance. It might also solve a candidate selection problem, where it might not want to choose as many candidates as it has incumbents. The ability of candidates to disassociate themselves from the party will also be interesting. Opinion polls between elections do not offer ballot papers with candidates on them – with those candidates we might see a different picture emerge. And if Fianna Fáil’s organisation is really superior, it might be able to minimise the damage.