WITH their final set-piece Ard-Fheis before the next general election, Fianna Fáil had an opportunity last weekend of showcasing their credentials to the electorate, but they did not seem to have anything more to offer than the proverbial same old same old. Even though the latest opinion polls showed them up a point at 19%, if these are to be believed, voters are obviously still not ready to forgive them for their part in the economic downturn that followed the Celtic Tiger boom years and this has to be worrying for the party leadership.
Indeed, the daily evidence being given to the ongoing Oireachtas Committee banking inquiry keeps reminding people of the critical decision made by the Fianna Fáil-led government in September 2008 to give a blanket guarantee to Irish banks whose reckless lending activities they had failed to regulate properly. The years of austerity that have followed as a result of this decision have done nothing to rehabilitate the hapless remains of the party in the public consciousness.
Last weekend’s Ard-Fheis at the RDS in Dublin was an opportunity to assess where they are at in their efforts to recover some of the ground they have lost since the party’s overwhelming rejection by voters in the 2011 general election and the realists in the Fianna Fáil ranks would have to reluctantly accept that their political rehabilitation has made precious little progress in the past four years and that they will hardly gain enough seats at the next election to lead a government. As for being a junior party in a future coalition government arrangement, Fianna Fáil have narrowed their options by ruling out pacts with their respective left and right-wing nemeses, Sinn Féin and Fine Gael, but such positions can often change in the wake of an election.
All the notable aspirations expounded at the Ard-Fheis do not sound like those of a party prepared to settle for a second consecutive term in opposition, which would be a first for Fianna Fáil, and what many would also consider a new low for them, but they will probably be forced to temper their expectations with a dose of realism. While, its 2014 European election results were disappointing, Fianna Fáil did get a notable lift from the local elections, winning 25% of the seats, but they have failed to build on this achievement in a sustainable manner, consistently falling below this figure in most subsequent opinion polls and causing some senior members of the parliamentary to publicly criticise Micheál Martin’s leadership.
By doing so, they are further undermining the party’s recovery prospects because it is making many people question its relevance as a separate political entity, given that many of the other parties – Sinn Féin in particular – have hijacked Fianna Fáil’s previously undisputed ‘republican party’ credentials and that Fine Gael is the pre-eminent centre-right party with quite a similar policy platform. Some of those putting pressure on Micheál Martin’s leadership have failed to demonstrate that they themselves can provide the answers needed to overcome the party’s current difficulties and it is quite disingenuous of them to try to hinge his future as leader on winning this month’s Carlow-Kilkenny by-election necessitated by former Fine Gael minister Phil Hogan’s recent move to Brussels to become EU Agriculture Commissioner. For Fianna Fáil to change leader this close to a general election would be perceived more as a sign of desperation than anything else and would be unlikely to significantly enhance the party’s electoral prospects.
Critics cannot but have been amused by the outpourings of its finance spokesman, and potential future Fianna Fáil leader, Michael McGrath, as he told Ard-Fheis delegates at the weekend, without any trace of irony in his voice: ‘We are not in the business of writing off sections of society or of prioritising the needs of a few.’
This is a welcome pronouncement, given that Fianna Fáil put party before country for most of the 14 years they held the reins of power from 1997. Now, the current government is about to follow suit: after putting country before party for its first four years in power, its has now started to prioritise enhancing the respective coalition parties’ populist appeal in their efforts to secure an historic second consecutive term in office.
They are in pole position to do this, leaving Fianna Fáil – a party still in flux – with an uphill battle to try to restore both its credibility and popularity, which could prove a bridge too far for the Soldiers of Destiny.