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