Monday, 9 November 2015

The next election could be the most defining in Fianna Fáil's history; and it doesn't look good.

Receding hairline, receding chance of being in government next year.

The general election of 2011 was supposed to be a game-changer. It was historic. It was unprecedented. It was a 'democratic revolution'. But it was all a bit boring, wasn't it? I mean, the result was more or less a foregone conclusion. We knew Fianna Fáil were going to be routed. We knew the Greens would be pushed to the edge of extinction. We knew Fine Gael would win the most seats but most likely not enough for a majority government and so would have to form a coalition (again) with a newly resurgent Labour party. It was thrilling, alright, but oh so predictable. A bit like watching The Great Escape for the twentieth time and feigning surprise when Steve McQueen fails to make that jump over the barbed wire fence.

But next year's election is anything but a foregone conclusion. It's a feast of unhinged and unimaginable possibilities. Everything could change. Fine Gael are still comfortably the nation's biggest party but they're not likely to match their 2011 numbers. The rise of Sinn Féin has been one of Irish politics' most enduring themes over recent years but their poll numbers seem to have hit a glass ceiling since the dizzying highs of late 2014/early 2015 when they were at Fine Gael's coattails. Still though, they're going to be big players on the Irish political scene for years to come be it in government or, more likely, in opposition. Labour, to put it incredibly mildly, are going to take a big hit. The way things stand, Joan Burton would bite your hand off for 10 Labour TDs to be returned to Leinster House. And she'd probably bite your other hand off for her own reelection which is hanging in the balance. The Independents and smaller parties currently have the support of around 25% of the electorate and they could be the kingmakers when it comes to deciding which party leader will be heading over to politely ask Michael D to convene the 32nd Dáil next March/April/Whenever Enda gets round to it.

But the electoral story with the most intriguing themes and subplots for my money is the fate of Ireland's grand old party, Fianna Fáil. This is an absolutely pivotal election in the history of Fianna Fáil, if not the most pivotal. What makes it so special is that it is uncharted territory for Fianna Fáil; never before have they participated in a general election as the opposition party and not regained power. And that is exactly what could happen in 2016. 

For Micheál Martin is facing a political Catch 22. When the dust has settled on next year's election and there are no Fianna Fáil bums on cabinet seats then he will almost certainly be forced to resign. But entering into Government will be no easy feat, even if they perform well in the polls. The chances of them winning an outright majority are about the same as the chances of the party forming a concrete position on repealing the eighth amendment. The only conceivable way they could be the senior party in a coalition would be if they entered into a coalition with Sinn Féin and/or Labour and a harem of Independents. This is unlikely as Micheál Martin has ruled out ever working with Sinn Féin in government. And the Shinners for their part have also ruled out ever getting into bed with Fianna Fáil (Or Fine Gael for that matter). They do say never say never in politics but given the vitriol both of the party's leaders have been exchanging over the last few months, primarily on issues to do with the 1916 commemmorations and the legitimacy (or lack thereof) of the Provisional IRA's campaign during the Troubles, it would seem highly unlikely that either side would like to hop into bed with each other even if it meant a shot at power and relegating Fine Gael to the opposition bench. Labour, on the other hand, probably won't have the numbers on their own, even if both parties convinced 10 or more Independents to side with a rag tag coalition of conflicting interests. 

So that leaves us with one final possibility; a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil coalition. It's been talked about in hushed tones for some time now; how it might be Fianna Fáil's only viable attempt to return to some sort of power, how it might be Fine Gael's most viable attempt at retaining power if Labour really do capitulate spectacularly and, how when you step back and inspect it and disregard all that silly historical baggage, it really makes a lot of sense to everyone. The latter point is the gist of what the late Bill O'Herlihy, a Fine Gael party stalwart for many years, said during a speech at Béal na Bláth two years ago. From the Fianna Fáil side, Mary O'Rourke has in the past voiced approval at the prospect of a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil government.  More pertinently, over two-thirds of county and city councils are controlled by alliances containing both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil councillors. And half of those alliances are contain only Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael councillors. That means that over a third of Ireland's local authorities are controlled by a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil coalition. So how much of a leap would it take to transport this political synergy these two parties have created to the national stage? 

Not much of a leap, one would assume, given how many TDs have been wont to proclaim that 'Civil War politics are over'. But it's not quite as simple as that. For Fianna Fáil would almost certainly be the junior partner in any coalition the two parties would form. This would be a problem for Fianna Fáil. At the beginning of the year I remember watching an episode of Claire Byrne Live and one of the topics they discussed was Fianna Fáil's performance under Micheál Martin and their prospects for the future. Niall Collins, Mary O'Rourke, Noel Whelan and another political hack whose name escapes me were on and, I can't quite remember who said it, but somebody remarked that Fianna Fáil "still think and act like they're the biggest party in the state." This sums up the problem Micheál Martin would have forming any sort of coalition with Fine Gael. It would be the bitterest of bitter pills for their supporters to swallow. It would be a moral humiliation to them. 

While many argue that the Civil War created an unnatural political division that has come to define Irish politics for too long, this division came to almost define both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. From an outsider's point of view it makes perfect sense that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael should form a coalition given the vast quantity of common ground they share on economic and social issues but to the grassroots Fianna Fáil die-hard, being a junior partner to Fine Gael would represent something close to political irrelevance. Sharing power with them on a few rural councils is one thing but nationally it would be a whole different kettle of fish.  

From the outside looking in, the Fianna Fáil grassroots supporters and cummans are at a bit of a loss currently. Of all the major parties they seem to be the ones most unsure of their position. For Fianna Fáil's identity in the past was not determined by some specific political dogma or ideology; but on being the great catch-all party, the people's party and by being bigger and more popular than Fine Gael. All that is gone now. They are now, to paraphrase Avon Barksdale, like a man without a country. The party at large is suffering from an identity crisis and no where is this more apparent than at the grassroots level. There seems to be a chasm engulfing Fianna Fáil; one force is pushing towards the New Fianna Fáil we all envisaged would arise from the disaster of 2011 while the other is pulling it back to Old Fianna Fáil. In 2011, I remember being a first year in college when my friend, who was heavily involved in the Ógra Fianna Fáil at UL, told me that the party would now be rebranding itself as a centre-left party in an attempt to counteract Fine Gael's traditional centre-right positioning and to reestablish itself in the hearts and minds of the electorate. Given their historic chameleon-like ability to adapt themselves to whatever political circumstances the party found itself in I didn't put it past them. Whether my friend was embellishing the truth or not, it didn't happen.

What's happening in the constituencies and the selection conventions illustrate what I'm talking about. The return to the fold of politicians whose names are etched onto the collective mind of the Irish electorate as being irrevocably linked with the Celtic Tiger years- Mary Hanafin, Conor Lenihan, Sean Haughey - perhaps best embodies the chasm. The returns of Hanafin and Haughey are particularly noteworthy as they resulted in the marginalisation of two young, liberal politicians who perhaps would have or could have represented New Fianna Fáil - Kate Feeney in the case of Hanafin and, most significantly, Averil Power in the case of Haughey. Power, of course, left the party in the wake of Haughey's return and said Fianna Fáil "doesn’t know what it stands for" in her statement on resigning. The introduction of the gender quotas too have wreaked havoc on Fianna Fáil like no other party. Many constituencies have been in open revolt over the perceived injustice of them. The nomination of Connie Gerety Quinn in Longford recently, who was selected automatically without a popular vote after an order came in from HQ that the running mate of sitting TD Robert Troy would have to be female, caused chaos among party members there. It is but the most recent of countless examples. 

With all this strife, being a junior partner to Fine Gael would be the nail on the coffin of any chance Fianna Fáil have of regaining even a semblance of the power and prestige they once took for granted.  There could be ways of getting around this. It has been suggested that Fianna Fáil could, as an opposition party, support a Fine Gael led minority government in exchange for "concessions on its own manifesto". They'd still be tacitly submissive to Fine Gael but not formally so like they would as junior partner in a coalition, at least. It is probably the least terrible of options on offer.

Perhaps another spell in the opposition benches would serve them well though that would almost certainly mean the departure of Martin as leader. Few tears would be shed in the parliamentary party at least but then they have the problem of choosing a successor. Michael McGrath? Niall Collins? Dara Calleary? None are particularly inspiring choices. And that perhaps best sums up Fianna Fáil's predicament at the moment; the party is at a crossroads and no route seems particularly appealing

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