Fianna Fáil’s comeback is no surprise

Guest post by Prof R. K. Carty, University of British Columbia

Screenshot 2016-02-29 20.11.00

Some seem surprised by Fianna Fáil’s success in the February election. They shouldn’t be. Indeed there are so many reasons that help explain it that untangling their relative contribution will take some time.1. As Michael Marsh’s research has long demonstrated Irish voters’ identification with Fianna Fáil has been broader and deeper than for any other party. It may be that some disavowed those loyalties in 2011 but that hardly negated the standing power of the brand loyalty. It was there to be remobilized.

2. At the Ard Fheis in 2012 Micheal Martin and Sean Dorgan set about the restructuring and rebuilding of the party organisation (see here). While much of that work may have occurred below the political surface the impact has been significant. Party members have been empowered, the nomination process reformed and a new generation has begun to populate the organization. This first showed up at the local elections (where Fianna Fáil’s success was downplayed by many as some kind of accident) and now in the many able young candidates who have been successful in winning Dáil seats.

3. The Fine Gael-Labour coalition won the 2011 general election with by far the largest majority in the history of the state. Their problem was that they (or at least the dominant FG part of it) appeared to have no vision, no ambition beyond replacing Fianna Fáil. They spent the vast political capital they had been given in implementing a financial regime designed by their predecessors and insisted upon by Eurocrats. Despite their sweeping mandate, opportunities for needed (and promised) democratic reform and for the imaginative tackling of the obvious challenges in health, housing and education were never embraced. And then the government announced they would campaign on the slogan of “more of the same”. It would have been tough for Fianna Fáil not to have “made hay” against such a record!

4. Fianna Fáil ran a clear, values oriented campaign. The party grasped the reality of the situation, acknowledged the past, and reclaimed Fianna Fáil’s traditional space as a vaguely centre-left party that sought to speak for all rather than any single part of the community. The campaign’s core notion of fairness brilliantly articulated the party’s critique of the government and its ambitions for the future without providing unnecessary hostages to fortune. Martin’s dominant performance established his position as a viable Taoiseach ready to provide leadership.

5. The electoral system helped by providing a small boost rather than the big penalty it handed Fianna Fáil in 2011. That probably reflected its increased vote share but some flowed from excellent campaign and vote management (as in Mayo) and some from a more realistic nomination strategy. The net result was to more than double the size of the parliamentary party (with more Senators still to come), including a critical break through in Dublin.

All of these factors worked to propel Fianna Fáil back onto centre stage. The party is still a long way from its historic position of easy dominance but it is clear that the many obituary notices over the past few years that proclaimed its death have all been premature.

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2 thoughts on “Fianna Fáil’s comeback is no surprise

  1. FF Manifesto “Propose a referendum to introduce a mixed list/PR-STV system.”
    Please comment – particularly in light of the outcomes of the Constitutional Convention, which considered this in detail and voted to stick with PR-STV, with some considerable changes.

  2. Surely the key point of this election is the return to a pattern that has been present since 1969 – the failure of an outgoing government to be reelected. This has only happened once in nearly 50 years ie. in 2002, the FF-PD government was re-elected. The resulting hubris means that generations will be paying for the failures of policies implemented by that government.

    I suggest that one way to interpret this pattern is that the electorate have been trying to nudge the political class to enhance how we govern ourselves. For years, the response to this has been to centralise more and more – thereby lengthening the feedback loops between us and those who govern us, at national and transnational levels.

    But those who govern us have admitted just how incompetent they are. The National Economic and Social Council (NESC) has clearly admitted how the political, administrative and financial elites failed over the past 15 years.”In the past decade, Ireland’s approach to fiscal policy, prices, costs and financial regulation were not sufficiently adapted to the disciplines of a single currency.“
    http://www.nesc.ie/dynamic/docs/The%20euro%20MEDIA%20RELEASE%20from%20NESC.pdf

    It is clear that incompetent centralisation is the reciprocal of the late Peter Mair’s amoral localism, when looking at how we govern ourswelves

    What we will not hear about are the many detailed examples of the failure of central government eg
    • The year-to-year funding of the health services, which shows a failure to understand the complexities involved in providing modern services;
    • The Garda Inspectorate report showing the failure to modernise the Garda;
    • The OECD report on the lack of Dáil oversight of government finances;
    • A Council of Europe report showing that no one in the department overseeing local government could set out the basis for the allocation of funds to local authorities;
    • Dan O’Brien’s critical assessment of the skills/capacities of the Dept of Finance, published in the ITimes on 28June2010;
    • a comment in the latest EU Commission report on Ireland ie.
    “Multiannual government expenditure ceilings continue to be revised frequently.
    These ceilings aim to safeguard against pro-cyclical fiscal policies and facilitate medium-term planning of budgetary priorities. However, they have been revised upwards systematically since their introduction. The government has exercised considerable discretion in the wake of higher
    than expected economic growth.”
    http://ec.europa.eu/europe2020/pdf/csr2016/cr2016_ireland_en.pdf

    It remains to be seen the extent to which FF’s Dáil reform proposals can provide any impetus for new patterns, given their committment to having a referendum on MMP electoral system. MMP gives more power to the centre as parties decide where individuals appear on the party list.

    The closest we can get to assessing how our political parties would use MMP is our Senate. Party politicians control 90% of the membership. This experience is that parties have taken a do-minimum approach to anything other than centralisation.

    Where is the impetus for checks and balances to limit the scope for excessive inertia or incompetent action, if the only source of initiative are the power centres/incumbents/insiders that are designing Dail reform?

    Despite all the electoral nudging and even external prressure to reshape governance, our governing elites appear to have learnt little over the years.
    Are they caught in a Dunning Kruger syndrome?

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