How will Fianna Fáil do after the next election?

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.

16 thoughts on “How will Fianna Fáil do after the next election?

  1. Nick Coffey from Dundalk, an experienced journalist and political commentator has just said on Morning Ireland that a local poll in Co louth gives Gerry Adams 37% and Sinn Fein Councillor Joe Reilly gets 20% in neighbouring Meath East. A United Left Alliance including former TDs Joe Higgins and Seamus Healy has been launched. The current crisis is so great that it is not impossible that Labour +SinnFein +left TD’s will have a numerical majority in the new Dail.
    Whether and how soon Fianna Fail “bounces back” is dependent on factors which are wider and deeper than those covered in Eoin O’Malley’s piece. Fianna Fail is not just a centre party. It is a classic Bonapartist and nationalist party. Throughout its history it has lurched sometimes to the left, sometimes to the right as was also the case with Peronism. It draws support from all classes and strata of the population. The ingredient binding the cross class alliance together was always nationalism. It has made economic attacks on the poor before and presided over huge unemployment and emigration. A key ingredients that allowed it to bounce back previously was it’s nationalism. This was facilitated by popular disappointment with its opponents who had ousted it from government. Clann na Poblachta, the two Labour parties and Clann Na Talmhan entered coalition government with Fine Gael in 1948. McBride,having won bye-elections against Fianna Fail, got into bed with the Blueshirts having won 12 seats in the general election on a populist and nationalist basis. The two Labour parties participated in a government that could not deliver half decent health care at a time when social democratic reforms were being introduced all over Western Europe.In the ensuing general election Clann na Poblachta and Labour lost heavily and Fianna Fail returned to power.
    The parallel between Sinn Fein to-day and Clann na Poblachta of 1944 to 1948 is striking.It is a small step for the large working class and small farmer support of Fianna Fail to switch to Sinn Fein because of its perceived nationalism.Tens of thousands of urban dwellers had also switched from Fianna Fail to Labour in the 1943 local elections. Their is precedent for the defection of Fianna Fail supporters which is happening to-day.
    Fianna Fails ability to bounce back on this occasion is made more difficult by its abandonment of the constitutional nationalism in Dev’s constitution and by its effective surrender of national sovereignty to the IMF.
    But it can overcome these disadvantages if Sinn Fein, Labour, and the left disappoint their followers particularly by joining an austerity bearing coalition with Fine Gael.
    In my view, if Labour, Sinn Fein and the left TDs stay out of coalition with Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, the “bounce back” of Fianna Fail, will be impossible.

    • It’s a possibility (albeit a small one) that left wing parties/ representatives get a majority in the Dáil. If they were to, would Labour want to lead that coalition. In the 1960s or 1980s they would have jumped at the chance, but would they be willing to work with Sinn Féin? And would they want the difficulty of working with a lot of independents who might be more demanding?

    • Paddy,

      Nick Coffey may be an experienced journalist. I am an experienced reader of and listener to his predictions. His predictions are rarely accurate and often monumentally wrong. From my experience of following predictions, if Nick said today was a Wednesday I’d double check the calendar. A good rule of thumb with Nick’s predictions is to presume whatever he predicts won’t happen because it so rarely does.

  2. “Despite the ‘legendary Fianna Fáil organisation’, much of it is based around active individual TDs.”

    This is the key weakness in Fianna Fáil. The elected reps run the party, and if many TDs lose their seats, you will see the organisation in those constituencies disintegrate.

    Unless they can run a very conservative campaign for the purposes of conserving TDs in as many constituencies as possible (as opposed to conserving as many TDs as possible – regardless of location), then FF may have a chance to withstand this defeat and regrow itself.

    Also, your other point about the wrong candidates being elected, it will be important, for the very survival of the party that the old guard stand aside and let the younger generation move in.

    However, I doubt this will happen in any strategic way. We might see it on an ad-hoc basis – for instance as you said in Louth.

    We’ll wait and see I suppose, Fianna Fáil are notorious for keeping their cards against their chest until the very last minute (which ironically is one of their problems).

    • At present the Fianna Fail organisation has been ground down for a variety of reasons, it is now a party in the publics mind “anybody but Fianna Fail”. Yet here in Co Meath in the Dunshaughlin Electoral area a new group of young people all college graduates have come together and formed whats called a “futures group” there aim to keep the spirit of the party alive through these difficult times and to be there to rebuild the party under new strong leadership.As well as developing new radical policies for the country and its future. This group has been mentored by Mary Wallace T.D.and has the support of the parties organisation at local level.

      How it is viewed in Mount St I am not sure, but if it can continue without central interference from Headquarters it can and will develop right around the country in the next two to three yeras in my opinion.It is one of the catalysts that will have to tried to move the party in a new political landscape that is going to emerge after the General Election. I am very supportive of this group of very dedicated young people who seem to have a grasp of the mood of the nation far better than those in Leinster House, who, for certain deputies and Ministers have lost touch with reality and live in a time warp of past achievements.

      As secretary of the F.F. National councillors forum I detect a strong movement from fellow councillors around Ireland, as to how the party should be managed into the future and dictats from Mount Street will not have the same respect as in the past.

      As a 61 year old and a member of the party since I wsa 16 years of age, my personal view is that the very survival of the party depends on a generational change, otherwise we will repeat the mistakes of the past 15 years of the political structure that Bertie Ahern and his colleagues centralised to the detriment of the Grassroots.

      We have a strong future as a political party, provided we are willing to recognise our need to change and get back to being a peoples party.

      Cllr Nick Killian
      Member of Meath County Council

    • Thanks – but it’s not a very convincing rebuttal to the many criticism made against it. The most damning one being that the data was selected to suit their case, so they evidently chose certain years to demonstrate the relationship they want to prove is there, even though it drops off when you replicate it with other years, and or/ measures.

      As for the evidence that people prefer the fairness in societies such as Sweden, of that I have no doubt. I’m sure no one would object to living in Sweden (though I’d prefer not to have to get used to this weather), but would it be the case if we brought in Swedish social policies that a Swedish economy/ society would emerge? It might, but I suspect it would either not be wanted (because the group that would have to pay would resent doing so) or would not work (because there wouldn’t be a sense of a contract/ responsibility that one might see in non-Anglo-American cultures).

      Is the problem not so much that we don’t spend enough on social protection measures – we spend quite a lot if you use GNP rather that GDP (as they do for Ireland in the Spirit Level), but that it goes mainly on high salaries? Perhaps we don’t spend the money efficiently.

  3. The social democrats ruled in Sweden as long as Fianna Fáil have in Ireland, albeit in Sweden they ran the country far better.

    But now the centre right wing government in on its second term. There is no law that Fianna Fáil has to remain the largest party or be in office the most despite what Fianna Fáil would like.

    Over the next few weeks all sorts of FF TDs will stand down and with them the activists who are in the party for that TD not the party itself. Also, even through the worst of GUBU and the Ahern lies over his money FF was still getting 40% + but now that is halved and even if there are a few % who will vote FF but won’t admit it publicly will they bother to actually vote and where are the transfer that elect TDs to the last seats coming from and going to, I can’t see anyone who votes FG or L or even G transfering to FF on the scale needed for it to win the final seats.

    The proper thing for the country should have been for an immediate election, which we’d be half way through by now, and let a new government decide on the budget and IMF details, the IMF/EU could easily have given Ireland access to a fund and no need to go to the markets and then in January announced the proper details.

    However to cling onto power and presumably protect its financial backers as long as possible, Cowne has instead lined up a far worse outcome for FF than might have otherwise been the case. We know what FF did in the final months of the first GUBU government and what it did when in 1994 it knew it was leaving office so the mind boggles what it is now doing in the final weeks of this GUBU II government and even more so knowing that for the first time ever, FF is likely to be the second party at best and more than likely defeated by a government with a large enough majority to have two terms in office, which means FF loses the power of patronage for two full terms and with it that means all sort of people who previoulsy gave money to FF will now not do so as why would they when FF has no powers of patronage to offer them in return.

    Fianna Fáil will come back with about 35 seats and lots of the same tired old faces, the likes of the big vote getters like O’Dea will still get back, if they choose to run, but having the likes of O’Dea as the face of FF is hardly going to rebuild the party plus maybe the defeat will attract a whole generation of people to FF who are honest and ethical, maybe the children and grandchildren of the pre Haughey era people like George Colley or Patrick Hillery will take an interest in politics.

    It won’t see a revival like in FG where people regretted how it lost seats on a scale the ppublic had not intended and whatever mistakes FG made, it has never ever come remotely close to making the mess FF has made.

  4. Let us remember that the FF vote in the Donegal by-election stood up quite well (considering the extraordinary national circumstances in which it was held). Does 20% in Donegal SW translate into a national vote of 15% or 16% as Red C and other orgs are reporting?

    There is also an interesting debate to be had on the difference between good (quality)candidates and good (electable) candidates. And not just in respect of Fianna Fail. Apart from the shameless chasing of celebs (mainly of the GAA kind in rural areas) we seem to have lowest common denominator criteria in place all around the country. For example, in the new Limerick constituency FG is strongly rumoured to have approached John Dillon, the former president of the IFA, hoping to repeat the successful courtship of Sean Kelly, the former GAA-head last year. Now Mr Dillon may have some qualities, though if he does it’s lost on me. He can hardly string a sentence together and has never expressed any interest in public policy beyond agriculture. So replacing dumb whip-compliant FF teachers and solicitors with clones from Fine Gael seems destined only to produce a mirror image of the current parliament. I don’t know anybody with a PhD or advanced Master’s Degree in the social sciences, or indeed any other disciplinary area who has been approached by a political party to run. Instead the emphasis remains on ‘vote-getters’ who can mazimize locale-specific afiliations who will be sent to Dublin to ‘deliver for the constituency’. That is not irrational given the demands made by a PR system. But there is a terrible price to be paid for it in both the quality of public policy-making and the nature of oversight and scrutiny of decision-making within the Oireachtas.

  5. Rumours of the legendary Fianna Fáil organisation are greatly exaggerated. It used to have an amazing organisation, but people I know in the party have said that for a number of years, even before this current crisis, that the organisation was a mess. Large numbers of cumainn that once were highly organised with large memberships, according to some FF TDs have collapsed and are little more than paper cumainn for convention purposes. One TD told me he reckoned 60% of the cumainn in his constituency were non-functioning, particularly in urban areas. To to it humorously, the idea of an effective FF organisation is so last century!

  6. I used to think that notwithstanding the bad polls FF would still win in the mid 40s in seat totals with some polls underestimating FF. I am beginning to think that FF could be in the 30s. I have a theory that if FF are out of power for two terms, they may disintegrate. The reason is simple – the party is the ultimate clientalist machine, and relies for support in terms of money, support, etc, on its ability to ‘deliver’. Take away its power to deliver via government for two terms, and its support base that comes from expecting influence to come from support may drift away. I don’t think they are conditioned to remain committed to a party that is out of power for a long period. Until now FF has always been out of power for no more than one term at a time. If they are out for a second term, how many of the key fundraisers, organisers, backers etc will hang in there, when they party cannot ‘deliver’ anything and is powerless on the sidelines?

  7. Whilst we are gettiong suvch positive poll figures for Labour on a national basis I question whether there has been sufficient analysis of the profile of candidates being offered by Labour to allow them harvest their national voting picture in each constituency e.g. in waterford where the sitting TD Brian O’Shea is located in the Waterford city area and his running mate is also in the city. The more obvious scenario is that another left candidate, possibly Cullinans (Sinn Fein)will benefit from the situation. Similarly, in South Tipperary the chances of Labour picking up a seat are low ewith the intervention of Seamus Healy.
    It would be interesting to see, on a constituency by constituency basis, where Labour will win the seats predicted.
    I see some positive signs for Fianna Fail if enough old brigade TDs follow Rory O’Hanlon and Dermot Ahern. There is a crop of young TDs, untainted by the excesses of the past 10/15 years, to be the nucleus of a party in transition building back to some strength over the next 5 years. It is difficilt, at this time to ever see them becoming the force they were but, with political reform, that may be a very good thing. Political parties will reshape and the political landscape will change considerably over the next 5 years. It may be asking too much of Labour/Fine Gael to hold together for this period given the programmes that have to be driven through the Dail.

    • As soon as FG/Lab get in and start implementing austerity they will be despised within months and going on past form will not be as stable as FF-led coalitions, making a second election within the next couple of years probable. The quicker this happens the more unlikely it is that people will simply revert to FF, so the whole political landscape should open up. With a bit of luck the three largest parties will be demolished in rapid succession and then we can have real change.

  8. There is the situation across the country of strong local competing Fianna Fail TD’s , such as John McGuinness and Bobby Aylward in Kilkenny .

    Both these TDs are retaining their voters as the most hardworking politicians you could find anywhere.

    But they are also retaining their supporters in their ongoing opposition to each other at local constituency level .
    It is my belief that wherever you have such internal competition , externalised in a constituency , both FF TD’s will be re-elected.
    And in Carlow = Kilkenny there is no viable Labour candidate where Cllr. Anne Phelan of Graiguenamanagh , a very ordinary county councillor unknown in Kilkenny City is the only Labour opposition that John and Bobby have – they will wipe her out:-)
    Then you have Senator John Paul Phelan , to be elected elected to join Phil Hogan for Fine Gael ( there is even a Hogan-Aylward arranged transfer! ) , probably at the expense of Green junior minister Mary White .
    And MJ Nolan FF TD has the whole of Carlow to himself , with no real opposition from Fine Gael’s Michael Deering in Carlow Town.

    So , despite the low party poll , it looks like Fianna Fail are going to once again pull off three TDs out of five in Carlow-Kilkenny! 3 out of 5 for starters –

    So where do you go from there ?

    And once the Nemesis of Brian Cowan is removed as party leader to be replaced by Micheal Martin, a suave intellectual party leader compared to the FG and Labour offerings , I can see Fianna Fail actually holding but with a much reduced vote.

    Add in then a Sinn Fein coming back with ten seats , to include Cullinane of Waterford , and the usual other Independents , and you could have a very tight calculation for the next government – especially as Labour does not have the candidates in the right constituencies right now – Dominic Hannigan in Meath for Labour to be elected , who else ?

    No way is anybody going to disturb the likes of Mattie McGrath in South Tipp , the Budget wasn’t that bad after all , it is also seen as necessary by everybody – Joan Burton was really poor in response to it , Michael Noonan is Old Age, nobody wants Enda Kenny as Taoiseach –

    Fianna Fail still has it all to play for if it can somehow sort itself out in Dublin.

    • Further demonstrable proof that Fianna Fail has degenerated into a North Korean-style delusional sect. You gotta love ’em for clinging to their own Strangelovian framework of reality!

  9. At the same time Brid Smith ( now a ” People Before Profit” ( sic) councillor in Dublin )and her SWP comrades trapised the streets of Kilkenny with ten thousand leaflets for six weeks condemning the so-called ‘ nazis’ , one of whom was going for election to Kilkenny Corporation ( and was found to be a staunch Fianna Fail Independent by the local ” Kilkenny People” newspaper at the time! )
    I believe that Smith is going for election alongside Boyd-Barrett and some others in the upcoming General Election.
    Fair enough if people worried by the present economic recession want to elect them to the Dail, though I think that they belong in the Constituency of Grangegorman .
    This is the problem , you are going to have many such rank idiots go forward for election now, God Help Ireland!
    Someone wonders above about an election alliance of such headbangers gaining power with the Labour Party and Sinn Fein.

    Both parties have more sense, one would hope.

    But they have already persuaded Joe Higgins MEP to join in with them – Goodbye Joe!

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