Much of the talk occupying Irish political discourse at the moment is the notion of a revolution; a great changing of the guard that will see the political landscape of this country uprooted and turned on its head. As a wave of new ideas threatens to sink the established order, recipe prominent independent TDs prepare to form new alliances in an effort to add new perspectives to the national conversation. RedC polling shows that people intending to vote for independent candidates in the next general election outnumber those who intend to vote for any of the established parties by a considerable margin, remedy as fury over water charges and cronyism tears into the government’s credibility.
Curiously however, despite all the turmoil in the political system at the moment, the country’s main opposition party is still failing to overtake the main party of government in the polls. In fact, despite Irish Water, despite the McNulty affair, despite everything that has taken place in the lifetime of this government, Fianna Fáil have failed to consistently outpoll Fine Gael. In fact, the Fianna Fáil party has in recent months been overtaken by Sinn Féin, a party which has outpolled them continuously since the local and European elections. This is all uncharted territory for a party that, until 2011, had receive the most Dáil seats in every election since 1932.
There are of course a wide variety of reasons for Fianna Fáil’s lacklustre performance in opinion polling, at least by their standards. The most obvious one of course is that the current economic shambles is ultimately seen by many voters, quite understandably, as the legacy of Fianna Fáil and their three terms in government from 1997 to 2011. Fine Gael have often used this to their advantage while in government, oftentimes lamenting the fact that they wouldn’t have to make so many unpopular decisions if Fianna Fáil had not gotten the country into this mess in the first place. That constant reminder of the party’s past blunders makes it hard for ever Fianna Fáil stalwarts to back a party that is seen to be the force behind so many of the country’s woes. This is compounded by political figures such as Mary Hanifin and Bertie Ahern remaining in the news, making it harder for the party to convince the electorate to move on. While it is true that Fianna Fáil are now the largest party in local government in the state, this masks the fact that made few gains from 2007’s local election, which was seen universally as a disaster at the time, and have not made gains at nearly the same rate as Sinn Féin, who were seen by most commentators as the true winners of that election. They also still lack a TD in the entirety of Dublin and failed in their bid to take the Dáil seat in the Roscommon-South Leitrim by-election.
However a broader issue facing the party is that of identity. At a time where Fine Gale and Sinn Féin are growing to be the two clear main parties of the left and right in the country’s slowly redefining axis, Fianna Fáil are still trying to keep up their tradition of marketing themselves as a big tent, populist party, open to all but airing on the side of conservatism. Their working class voters have mostly moved to Sinn Féin, while their middle class vote has moved to Fine Gael in hopes of keeping Sinn Féin out. In this new Irish landscape, it’s hard to see where Fianna Fáil fit. In some ways they are still the socially conservative party of Eamon DeValera, a figure that in the past would have inspired people to join but now is seen in a more negative light following the nation’s liberalisation on social issues since the 1990s.
Their attempts to appear as a socially liberal, more economically centre-left wing party have also suffered from their history. Many Irish voters, particularly on the centre-left and left, are unwilling to forgive a party that focused on weakening planning regulation and liberalising banking laws to allow those organisations to effectively govern themselves, which ultimately led to the country’s economy falling harder than most. The main option that appears available to the party is to take a liberal, centrist view; but that would leave them open to being squeezed on both sides by the two larger, more ideologically driven parties, a lá the Liberal Democrats in the UK being constantly wedged between the Labour Party on the Left and the Conservatives on the Right.
There is very much a possibility for the Fianna Fáil party to come back as a force in Irish politics, but some changes need to be made. The party needs to continue to move away from those that were the faces of the party during the last government; they need to be phased out. Along with this, the party must allow its younger members, who are more socially liberal, to come to the fore to allow for a real shift from the past. Fundamentally however, what the party needs is time. They need time to heal, time to phase the new faces in, time for the public to forgive their mistakes and find reasons to come back. However, with Fine Gael and Sinn Féin dividing up voters into a new left-right spectrum, we cannot be sure how much time Fianna Fáil may in fact have.