The Sunday Times opinion poll last weekend showed that Fianna Fáil’s support has fallen to a two year low – and that they are now 13% behind Fine Gael. They now languish behind Sinn Féin as the third most popular party.
This poll demonstrates why the party which has dominated Irish politics since 1932 has no future at all as long as Micheál Martin is leader. If an election were held tomorrow, Fianna Fáil would not stand a chance of leading the next government. In fact, they probably wouldn’t lead the next opposition either. How did it come to this?
How Fine Gael Got Their Groove Back
In 2016, Martin chose to sacrifice Fianna Fáil’s identity as an oppositional force to Fine Gael by entering into the ‘confidence-and-supply’ agreement. This agreement meant that Fine Gael could form a minority government for as long Fianna Fáil kept its promise to abstain on certain key votes.
For Fine Gael, the fruits of this agreement are plain-to-see. Free from having to contend with a meaningful opposition, they have had time to rebuild under a new and energetic leader who reflects Modern Ireland well, in all its flaws and superficialities.
Since 2016, Fine Gael has cemented its new-found status as the party of the liberal left, without yet alienating its core constituency. Having stolen the Labour Party’s clothes, Fine Gael faces no serious challenge from the soft left as the combined support of Labour, the Greens and the Social Democrats stands at a paltry 6%.
Neither does Sinn Féin present much of a challenge: in fact, its mere existence is probably of benefit in persuading centre-right to vote FG, simply to stop a party of Marxist republicans from taking power and turning Ireland into a rainy version of Venezuela.
With the left side of the field crowded, the only profitable way to oppose Fine Gael is to oppose them from the right, and that is exactly what Micheál Martin has never done, and never will do.
Instead, Fianna Fáil supporters have had to stand idly by while their party leader has reinvented himself as a social democrat, tacked left on economic issues and espoused views on social issues which are anathema to the party faithful. Thanks to Micheál Martin’s leadership, Fine Gael has become the natural party of government, and is poised for a major victory should Varadkar choose to call time on this uneasy marriage of convenience and go to the polls.
Aim Low to Avoid Disappointment
This will cost many decent Fianna Fáil politicians their seats, but it is difficult to feel too much sympathy for them. The writing has been on the wall for almost a decade with Martin at the helm.
Martin was one of the most high-ranking ministers during the Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen eras in which this country was brought from a position of great prosperity to one of bankruptcy, Troika diktats and mass emigration. While he has done everything in his power to distance himself from Ahern, he cannot fully absolve himself of blame for the calamity which befell our country.
The calamity resulted in Fianna Fáil’s most catastrophic defeat in 2011 where they lost 50 seats and received just 17% of the vote. Throughout its illustrious history, Fianna Fáil could always count on getting between 40-45% of the vote at every general election – Ahern got almost exactly 40% in 1997, 2002 and 2007, for example.
The 17% who voted for Fianna Fáil in 2011, in spite of the hopeless economic predicament, represented the hardcore base who had always voted for the party of De Valera and Lemass.
In spite of the subsequent Fine Gael government’s rank unpopularity, Fianna Fáil lost even more seats at European level in 2014. Martin’s penchant for Guy Verhofstadt’s ‘Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe’ also caused the party’s sole MEP to defect to the Tory-led ‘European Conservatives and Reformists’.
In the 2016 General Election the party achieved a vote share of 24%, their second worst poll performance in history. However the fact that Martin was acclaimed for the 2016 election result reveals much about what his party has become under his leadership: mediocre. This losing mentality is so deeply ingrained within Fianna Fáil today that even Micheál Martin’s small achievements can appear impressive.
As Varadkar’s position strengthens by the day, and with Sinn Féin gradually establishing themselves as the natural opposition and leading force on the left, Fianna Fáil is at real risk of becoming irrelevant. This problem has been greatly exacerbated by the leadership approach of Martin, who has consistently treated his party colleagues and members with contempt.
The recent referendum is an obvious case-in-point. At successive Ard Fheiseanna, the party’s members voted by overwhelming majorities to oppose the legalisation of abortion, but Martin dismissed these exercises in party democracy. Had he any consideration for what his colleagues thought, Martin would have informed him of what he was about to do. He did not.
You might respond that the referendum result demonstrated the astuteness of Martin’s position, in that he chose to ride the tide rather than stand against it. Perhaps so. But it is also correct that neither party nor leader has benefited from his stance on the referendum. All credit among pro-choice voters has gone to Fine Gael, and Fianna Fáil’s pro-life voters are further alienated.
On the issue of the presidency, Martin has once again trampled upon Fianna Fáil party members, who voted in favour of contesting an election but who have been ignored.
Before Martin, the idea of the country’s preeminent political party refusing to contest a presidential election would have been unthinkable. This has been noted by long-time journalist and political observer Ger Colleran, who attributes the decision by FF to absent themselves to a lack of nerve, one which is dooming to party to irrelevance.
“They lack bottle for key battles,” Colleran wrote recently. “Hence, the party’s backing for Labour grandee Michael D. Higgins, luminary of the left and patron saint of the liberal elites, for another terms as President of Ireland.
“You don’t have to be a political scientist to know that if you want to become irrelevant in politics then simply refuse to contest ideas and policies in the public square.”
Day of Reckoning
It is becoming ever more obvious that Varadkar holds all the cards in his psychological battle with Martin. Whether he chooses an autumn election, or whether he postpones seeking a mandate of his own until after the Brexit negotiations conclude, Fine Gael’s leader is on course to be re-elected and to bring in dozens of new Fine Gael TDs in his wake.
As long as Micheál Martin is the leader of Fianna Fáil, there is no hope at all for the party to represent politically homeless centre-right voters. Fine Gael’s right flank will be completely secure, as in spite of having no clear political views at all, Martin is more comfortable when moving in a leftward direction, and demanding the sort of reckless spending increases which ruined our country the last time he sat at the cabinet table.
A party led by this opportunist will never be anything more than an ersatz version of Fine Gael, devoid of vision, and infested with the worst practises of Inchydoney socialism. If ideological balance, fiscal probity and genuine debate are to be restored in Irish politics, Micheál Martin has to be brought crashing down. Only then can the party be rebuilt as the pragmatic, moderately conservative and constitutionally nationalist force it once was.
That party can still be saved, but time is running out.