By Michael Gallagher
FF has got itself into something of a tangle over the presidential election. Torn between a range of options that seems to proliferate all the time – run its own candidate, facilitate a FF member to run as an independent, facilitate any independent who requires signatures to secure a nomination, allow each of its Oireachtas members to do what they want, or refuse to allow any FF Oireachtas member to assist anyone to secure a nomination – the party seems to have ended up in a situation from which there is no simple way out and, moreover, to have stirred up the first speculation about a leadership heave or a full-scale split into the bargain.
The mystery is why FF ever decided not to run a candidate, and entering the fray with its own candidate, even at this late stage, seems the most obvious course. It would be extraordinary if there were an election for the first office in the land, one that is already engaging the public, with candidates from three political parties and at least two independent candidates fighting it out – and with Fianna Fáil sitting meekly and silently on the sidelines. Sinn Féin’s energy and commitment to the campaign of Martin McGuinness contrasts starkly with what looks like FF timorousness, even if some in FF clearly see this choice as simply realism rather than lack of courage. Either way, the effect will surely be to create, or reinforce, the image of Fianna Fáil as a party that is increasingly marginal to Irish politics.
There are, of course, reasons, not to be dismissed out of hand, as to why FF decided some weeks ago not to run a candidate. One is that if the party runs a candidate who polls poorly – which means, in effect, even lower than the 17.4% of the votes the party won in the February election – this might send its morale spiralling even lower. Reportedly, private polling and/or focus group research suggested that no FF candidate would fare well. However, even a disappointing result is surely better than the 0% that would be registered by not running at all, and in any case the findings of polls conducted some way out from an election, at a time when the full list of candidates is not known, should be interpreted with great caution.
A second is that it does not have the money to fight an effective campaign. This may well be true in narrow financial terms, but parties do not usually let this stop them participating in important elections. Many parties at many elections in the past could have opted out with this excuse, but they find a way round it: by borrowing, by running a low-cost campaign, or by tapping that rich resource, the membership, for funds. FF may not have the 70,000 members that it frequently claims, but it surely has enough to fund a decent campaign with a modest contribution from most of them. (Seemingly, the money would have been there to fight a campaign had Gay Byrne agreed to run with FF support.) Indeed, a major reason for standing a candidate would be to reinvigorate and energise the ordinary membership of FF, who, after the debacle of the February election, when members were evidently quite unclear what the party stood for any more, desperately need a cause they can fight for whole-heartedly. It must surely be galling for many ordinary members of FF to be asked to sit on their hands for the next six weeks while the other parties commit themselves to the political contest – and if it not galling to them, then FF is in bigger trouble than we thought.
Third is the question of a candidate. While it would obviously make no sense to run the wrong candidate – such as someone closely associated with what will now always be perceived as the less than successful record of the FF-led administrations between 1997 and 2011, or someone with no electoral appeal – Brian Crowley did seem to fit the bill as a suitable candidate, as someone with a proven electoral track record who can nonetheless plausibly disclaim all responsibility for previous government decisions.
Fourth is the argument that the important elections for FF are the local elections of June 2014 and it should not be distracted from its task of reorganisation by getting involved in doomed or irrelevant campaigns before then. Yet, if a party does not continually assert its relevance, it may find that the electorate loses interest in it. De Valera supposedly said that ‘Labour must wait’ (though this may be apocryphal), but he would have been surprised to hear a later leader of his own party seeming to say ‘Fianna Fáil must wait’.
And, fifth, it is pointed out that Enda Kenny made the right choice in 2004 when he decided that Fine Gael would not contest the presidential election of that year. Things were different in 2004, though. There was a popular incumbent, in the form of Mary McAleese, who had high satisfaction ratings and would almost certainly have been re-elected whoever stood against her, and FG knew that if it did not run a candidate there would probably not be a contest. In 2011 there is an open race (no incumbent) and a definite contest, one in which every other significant party will be taking part. If in the end there had been a contest in 2004, with FF, Labour and SF all running candidates, then it seems very unlikely that FG would have adhered to its initial decision not to enter the contest, or that it would now be hailed as a masterstroke had it done this.
Fianna Fáil’s role in the 31st Dáil has been rather marginal so far, and it is hard to see how standing aside from a presidential election can do anything other than marginalise the party further.