Fianna Failing: can Micheál Martin hold on for much longer?
21st July 2021
It is September 2021: the Fianna Fáil TDs (Teachta Dála) have finally arranged to meet and reflect on both the abysmal Dublin Bay South by-election loss and equally poor performance in the general election of last year. All the TDs are gathered in a circle. “Okay Micheál, we are going to play a game of blind man’s bluff. Put this blindfold on and get in the closet,” Barry Cowen (TD for Laois-Offaly) instructs the Taoiseach. “Will there be anyone else coming in with me?” questions Martin. “Just get in the closet,” Cowen repeats with an exasperated sigh. The Taoiseach wanders unknowingly into the closet, the door slamming behind him. The rest of the Fianna Fáil cabinet continue their conversation in peace.
I will not be at this recently announced Fianna Fáil “think-in” meeting on September 1st, but I can only imagine it will go something like that. The tension between party members is palpable, combined with the prominent “leaking and sniping” going on and the unrest is almost too difficult to disguise at this point. Fianna Fáil is only going one direction in the polls; and now members want out.
The Dublin Bay South result was straightforward. Candidate Deirdre Conroy won just 5 per cent of the vote, finishing in a distant fifth place – an historic low for the party. This is in stark contrast to when back in 2011, even after bearing the brunt of the blame for the financial crisis, Fianna Fáil still managed to win 10 per cent of the same constituency. Now, they are trailing behind most major political parties and struggling to remain relevant in a rapidly changing Ireland. Ironically, the candidate that ran for them in Dublin South-East 10 years ago (Chris Andrews) has since switched his allegiance to Sinn Féin, possibly symbolic of what was to eventually come.
Naturally, a lot of the dialogue now centres around Taoiseach Micheál Martin. After all, he is the face of the party and the country itself. A growing number of TDs want him to step down before the next election, including one rebel Marc MacSharry (TD for Sligo-Leitrim) who was seeking 10 names for a motion of no confidence in the Taoiseach last week. However, for others, focusing on Martin alone is merely a distraction to the wider issues in the party. “It’s not all about the leadership. There are issues that need to be addressed that go much wider than that,” says Niamh Smyth (TD for Cavan-Monaghan).
So, if not Martin, then what are the issues at stake here? It is not like Fianna Fáil has been floundering for that long. They did win 44 seats in the Dáil back in 2016, a not-so-distant memory. Most of the key figures have also remained the same. So, what is the problem?
Put simply, most of the instability in Fianna Fáil support comes down to a lack of effective communication with voters. Particularly, they struggle to engage with voters below the age of 34, an age group only polling at 10 per cent first preference votes in the latest Business Post Red C poll. This perhaps correlates with the fact that Fianna Fáil have been mostly absent from social media for the last number of years, leaving Fine Gael and Sinn Féin TDs to joust it out over Twitter themselves. There at least seems to be some recognition in this department with Kildare North TD James Lawless, who addressed the Dublin Bay South by-election results on Today with Claire Byrne. He acknowledged the disconnect between the Taoiseach and his ministers from voters.
“Fianna Fáil has typically been the party of housing and social protection. But where are they when this is exactly what the voting public are crying out for? Where are these affordable estates for working families, and where are the council houses?”
There are also policy choices that no longer resonate with voters in 2021. Fianna Fáil has typically been the party of housing and social protection. But where are they when this is exactly what the voting public is crying out for? Where are these affordable estates for working families, and where are the council houses? Sure, there has been the COVID-19 pandemic at play in shutting down the construction industry, but that ultimately will not matter when people go to the polls. In a matter-of-fact sense, housing will either be there, or it won’t. Other political blunders such as the handling of fair wages for student nurses and the everyday financial consequences of the 2020 Finance Bill could also be considered factors in the party’s widening unpopularity.
In the end, there is no denying that what was Ireland’s dominant political party is now on thin ice. They still represent the status quo for many, which isn’t really a very exciting mantra to go with. As well as this, most of their voter base lies in the over-65 age group, which is an ageing demographic. is. Unless the party recognises the prevalent public desire for radical change, they too will be seen as an ageing, irrelevant political party.. There will need to be swift political shifts and pivots into how the party operates and manoeuvres, with some new faces at the helm.
There will need to be some hard conversations about how the organisation goes forward from here. Change can be painful, but nothing will be as painful as stagnating until you plummet down through to the ugly pit of irrelevancy. The facts are there: the Fianna Fáil brand is not as strong as it once was. This will be a case of knocking down the house foundations to build back better, ridding the party of any Bertie Ahern era ghosts for good- including Micheál Martin himself.
For now, it seems that TDs are at least aware of their party’s failings. They are happy to snipe at the Taoiseach from a distance and disassociate themselves from any major gaffes that the party makes (much to the chagrin of Martin). It seems they are happy enough to move away from him if it means that they themselves can survive a little longer. However, what they might not yet realise is that when you oust a political leader, there is always room in the closet for one more. “Who is next for blind man’s buff?” questions Barry Cowen spitefully.
Featured photo by Arnaud Jaegers
This article was supported by: STAND Programme Assistant Alex