I know of at least three Fianna Fáil candidates who are warning voters on the doorsteps of the danger of Sinn Féin being the largest opposition party after the election. It would be easy to dismiss this as desperate spin from desperate candidates, but the facts suggest otherwise.
There are five factors which were crucial to Fianna Fáil’s success in the 1997, 2002 and 2007 elections:
1) A popular leader
2) A reputation for economic competence
3) Tight candidate selection strategy
4) Good vote management
5) An ability to attract transfers
Other than the leadership, which has been resolved in the last three weeks, the other ingredients in the winning recipe are not present for Fianna Fáil on this occasion.
The decline in the party’s reputation for economic competence is obvious and does not require analysis.
Fianna Fáil is running too many candidates. Don’t take my word for it – it has been stated by Sean Donnelly, who previously advised Fianna Fáil on polling and candidate strategy. As a result, a diminished share of the vote may end up being split between two candidates, with the result that both end up losing out.
Vote management has gone out the window, as every candidate seeks to maximise his or her own personal vote.
Fianna Fáil was never a party that attracted transfers in large numbers from other parties or candidates. Voters tended to be either for or against Fianna Fáil. The lack of transfers is part of the reason why Charles Haughey never achieved an overall majority, despite achieving over 45% of the vote in each election in which he led the party.
Bertie Ahern realised and recognised that, at a time when the Fianna Fáil core vote was declining, he could use his own personal popularity to draw transfers from across the political spectrum. This contributed to Fianna Fáil’s ‘seat bounce’, where the party gained a higher proportion of seats than its share of the vote.
Fianna Fáil is transfer toxic in this election and this could mean that the party suffers a reverse seat bounce, where its share of the seats declines disproportionately to its share of the vote. This is what happened to Fine Gael in its meltdown election in 2002, where it’s share of seats fell from 32.5% in 1997 to 18.6% in 2002, while it’s share of the vote only fell from 27.9% to 22.5%.
It is this factor that perhaps could prove most damaging to Fianna Fáil in this election. It is also the factor that could benefit Sinn Féin most.
When one looks at some of the top target seats for Sinn Féin in this election, the gains Sinn Féin are seeking are all at the expense of Fianna Fáil:
Mary Lou McDonald – Dublin Central – seeking to unseat Fianna Fáil’s Cyprian Brady
Dessie Ellis – Dublin North West – seat currently held by Fianna Fáil’s Pat Carey (Fianna Fáil is guaranteed to lose at least one seat in this constituency, as it is only running one candidate following the retirement of Noel Ahern)
Larry O’Toole – Dublin North East – seat held by the retiring Michael Woods in the outgoing Dáil
Sean Crowe – Dublin South West – seeking to take one of the two seats Fianna Fáil currently holds
Peadar Tóibín – Meath West – Fianna Fáil held two seats here in 2007, but is vulnerable following the retirement of Noel Dempsey
Brian Stanley – Laois / Offaly – it is virtually certain that Fianna Fáil will lose one seat here, following the retirement of Brian Cowen, the only question is which party will gain at Fianna Fáil’s expense
Maurice Quinlivan – Limerick City – Fianna Fáil’s Peter Power is extremely vulnerable to the challenge from Quinlivan, who was famously defamed by Fianna Fáil’s other sitting TD in the constituency, Willie O’Dea
Pádraig Mac Lochlainn – Donegal North East – Fianna Fáil is guaranteed to be down one seat here from its 2007 total as it is only running one candidate
David Cullinane – Waterford – Fianna Fáil held two seats in Waterford in 2007 but is only running one candidate this time and Sinn Féin have a strong chance of picking up the extra seat.
Sinn Féin also have an outside chance of taking a second seat in Cavan / Monaghan, with Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin bringing in a running mate.
When one combines Fianna Fáil’s unpopularity, it’s lack of ability to attract transfers, the potential for it to lose a disproportionate number of seats and the fact that Sinn Féin is likely to win many seats currently held by Fianna Fáil, it becomes clear that it is far from impossible that Sinn Féin could overtake Fianna Fáil to become the largest opposition party.
Declan Harmon is a final year student of Business and Political Science in Trinity College. He is something of a political masochist, hence he is actively canvassing for Fianna Fáil in this election. He sits on the Ógra Fianna Fáil National Youth Committee and is chair of the party’s Cumann in Trinity.