One of the things that always surprises me when I talk with Fianna Failers is that I tend to be much more upbeat about the party’s election prospects than they are. I have no doubt that Fianna Fail will at least double its seats at the next election, and possibly more. It won’t return, in the next 20 years anyway, to its dominant position as the single major party in the country. This is because, in my opinion anyway, FF now has its own Blueshirt albatross to hang around its neck. Whereas Fine Gael dabbled with fascism, and still has to carry a burden for it, Fianna Fail is the party that couldn’t hack it, and had to ask foreigners to take over and run the country for it. That is a legacy FF will not shake in my lifetime. There are people, including former Fianna Fail voters, who will never forgive FF for that.
Having said that, Fianna Fail can reasonably expect in the next 10 years to lead a government again. One action which would bring that day closer would be for the party to resist the temptation of turning to the Standard Operating Procedure of Irish oppositions and just throwing absolutely every promise at the voters in the hope something will stick. In particular, FF should resist the temptation to scramble to the moral high ground for pure electoral reasons.
I say this because sometimes FFers can’t quite grasp that such an act looks very different outside the party compared to inside. Take, for example, criticising the government of appointing cronies to state boards. Fianna Failers think it’s really clever to call the government on this. What they don’t see is floating voters hearing Fianna Failers do this, triggering memories of FF doing the exact same in government, and just confirming the belief that Fianna Fail is two-faced. To put it a different way, imagine how FF members would react to a speech by Eamonn Gilmore attacking Fianna Fail for not keeping election promises. Imagine how outraged you’d be at the brass neck of it. Would it make you more likely to vote Labour? See that feeling? That’s how floating voters feel when FF tries to get all moralistic.
Fianna Fail has strengths. Its centrist, pragmatic values are the default setting of most Irish people. What FF needs now is to establish credibility, by not making fantastic promises or creating an air of unachievable expectation. Fianna Fail needs, for example, to be very careful that it doesn’t given in to the easy option of promising a 1977 style abolition of the Local Property Tax, or leaves voters with an uncosted belief that they will magically pay less tax under FF.
Secondly, there will be a huge temptation in FF to u-turn on political reform, on the basis that the party might actually be in power and therefore expected to actually change things. Funnily enough, I happen, perhaps naively, to believe that Michael Martin is serious about the need for real political reform. What I have serious doubts about, having seen what happened to Noel Dempsey, is his ability, and perhaps even willingness, to drive them through. Martin should hang tough on this, because political reform is not just some sort of academic hobby. It’s the key, particularly through local government reform, to breaking many of the logjams in Irish society, and connecting voters to the reality of political choices.
Finally, there’s Martin himself, who I find constantly to be much more popular outside the party than in it. Despite his link to the last administration, he still is the most credible person to lead FF. However, if he lets the 2016 line up compromise a load of former FF TDs and ministers, all freshly back from a vastly taxpayer well-funded sabbatical to have another go, that’ll change very quickly.