Fianna Fail: Rising Lazarus or Deadcat Bounce?

Yesterday’s Irish Times leads with the story that Fianna Fail, known throughout Europe as the 2008 financial crisis’s most spectacular political roadkill (other than perhaps PASOK in Greece), may have turned a corner (a real one, not one of the corners whose turning the late Brian Lenihan used to announce). In the latest MRBI poll, Fianna Fail have overtaken Sinn Fein into second place, a major achievement for a party that was reduced to rural rump status at the last general election in 2011. Fine Gael is stagnant at 31% (compared to 36% in 2011). Sinn Fein has seen its vote fall four points to 20% (still up from 14% in 2011). Labour saw its vote improve, going from 10% to 12% (still a catastrophic seven points down from 2011). In this context, Fianna Fail has managed, with a poll position of 21% to win a beauty contest within the opposition, which has been transformed by fragmentation and incoherence into a “least ugly” contest.

What are the implications for Fianna Fail? Does this (tiny) lead over Sinn Fein mark a new chapter in the party’s history? Here are a few reasons to believe that the answer is yes.

  1. The party has now survived more than a year and a half after its historic electoral meltdown with a relatively stable support level. It has not crumbled below the critical mass of support necessary to hold its current seats. It has survived the attempt of former deputy leader Eamon O’Cuiv to rebel against the Michael Martin leadership’s Europe policy. Consequently, we have not seen a devastating split led by the De Valera-ite wing of Fianna Fail. We have not seen the development of coordinated domino effects which might have led John McGuinness (one of the few remaining FF TDs with a strong national reputation) and/or some of the younger TDs to decamp to Fine Gael or a new party. This is an achievement for FF – notwithstanding the mediocrity of the party’s current level of support.
  2. The current government has failed to cover itself in any glory and the new broom of 2011 has failed to sweep out many cobwebs. The ongoing failure of the government to reduce public spending, the grotesque parody of industrial relations policy represented by the Croke Park Agreement and the bickering between Labour and Fine Gael ministers about whose constituency gets the juiciest slices of pork have raised serious questions in people’s minds as to whether Fianna Fail deserves to be stigmatised quite so egregiously as in 2011. This is not so much a case of the Fianna Fail brand being decontaminated, but of the contamination of the Fianna Fail brand spreading to other parties previously untainted by virtue of their previous lack of power. This may not be especially gratifying to Michael Martin’s ego but politics is a zero sum game which must always result in the election of a government. Therefore, it’s not how well one does, but how well one does relative to everyone else, which counts.
  3. The public may have begun to fathom some element of the truth about what really caused Ireland’s current woes. The fundamentals of our disastrous economic situation lie in Austrian Business Cycle Theory. Put simply, once we locked ourselves into the eurozone in 2002, we found ourselves captives of the ECB’s and US Federal Reserve’s monetary doctrines which assert that the creation of cheap money and the devaluation and debasement of currency stimulate economic growth. They do not. They strip away the real wealth-producing capacity of the economy and inflate investment and speculative bubbles, resulting in phenomena such as the now infamous “My Home is my ATM” doctrine. Fianna Fail deserves its own share of the blame for (a) having joined the euro in the first place; and (b) having meekly accepted the disastrous post-1971 fiat currency consensus. However, no significant body of opinion within the Irish body politic was prepared to challenge either of these Shibboleths. This is not to say that Fianna Fail’s pro-cyclical fiscal and regulatory policies made no difference. However, the difference was one of degree not direction – and in any event, many of the worst policies had either explicit or implicit support from the opposition. As the reputation of the EU, the IMF and the other high temples of neo-Keynesianism are tarnished, the notion of the Soldiers of Destiny as a convenient scapegoat for the nation’s ills loses its lustre.

Notwithstanding the above, Fianna Fail has several reasons to greet this poll with caution.

  1. The lead over Sinn Fein is statistically insignificant. Any sensible observer would regard Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail as being tied in second place. Also, one poll does not generate a trend. The trend over the last year and a half has been significantly in Sinn Fein’s favour and one poll is not going to change that. Fianna Fail should be looking at this poll with cautious optimism – but only cautious optimism. They should also bear in mind that the media coverage of the Sean Quinn affair has brought about an uncharacteristically weak response from Sinn Fein, many of whose Northern and Border County voters work for Quinn companies. While Sinn Fein’s uncharacteristic ambiguity in this regard may cause it permanent damage, it may also be that once the transitory coverage of the Quinn affair fades, Sinn Fein will be able to once again don its “people’s champion” mantle.
  2. This result, if replicated in a general election, would probably still leave Sinn Fein with more seats than Fianna Fail. Sinn Fein, remember, retains total toxicity among suburban middle class voters. This becomes a huge problem for the party in constituencies with a large concentration of upscale voters (e.g. Dun Laoghaire, Dublin South, Dublin South East, Dublin North, Wicklow, Limerick County, Cork South Central). Even in rural areas, there remain bizarrely anomalous constituencies such as Clare and Kerry South in which an insufficient Sinn Fein organisation existed  in 2011 to run even one candidate. This results in there being about one third of the country in which Sinn Fein has a negligible presence, meaning that the vote the party does get is more heavily concentrated than that of Fianna Fail and produces higher constituency percentages, more quotas and more seats in those constituencies. This means that Sinn Fein will find it exceedingly difficult to become a national party of government. However, it allows them to take more seats per vote than the more broadly spread Fianna Fail. If Fianna Fail reaches the critically important 25% barrier, then the effect of this phenomenon swings into reverse, with Fianna Fail taking 40+ seats. However, on 21%, it’s harder to see significant seat improvements. My guess for now is that on a performance of this nature FF takes about 24 seats and Sinn Fein 28.
  3. There are few grounds to believe that Fianna Fail has provided a compelling reason for its continued existence. One of the few advantages to the ideological cul-de-sac into which Eamon O’Cuiv tried to drive Fianna Fail this year – nationalist, agrarian, Gaelgeor-ist – is that it at least represented some kind of intellectual mission. Fine Gael shows no sign of relinquishing its crown as the party of the “catch-all” centre-right. Fianna Fail has no credibility as a socialist party – nor on the other end of the spectrum as a libertarian party. The Lemass-era rural, socially conservative social democratic party is an idea whose time appears to have come and gone. Right now, the only alternative to Michael Martin’s drift is the formation of a radical right force akin to the Freedom Party and the Alliance for the Future in Austria or the People’s Party in Switzerland. However, it’s an option for which Fianna Fail’s current generation does not appear to have the stomach. Without a clear philosophy, it seems hard to envision any chance of a significant breakthrough.

More broadly, this poll speaks to the continuing ambivalence of the electorate. The ULA continues to lose its sheen. Labour continues to regress to its historical mean of getting slaughtered after a term in government. Fine Gael’s support is currently being held up by three key factors:

  1. The lack of a coherent right of centre alternative in the mold of the old Progressive Democrats;
  2. The completely discredited nature of Fianna Fail among whole swathes of the electorate; and
  3. The tendency of certain Fine Gael backbenchers to openly criticise the Croke Park Agreement and to make forthright statements about the need to cut public spending is probably convincing worried Fine Gael voters that after a re-shuffle, the party will begin to stand up to Labour in a more effective way than the older 1980s generation of politicians is prepared to do.

Fine Gael should take note that all of these factors can very quickly reverse themselves. However, at this stage, it is too early to predict matters, which leads me to the conclusion that Fine Gael will remain complacent until a crisis of some kind occurs.

Most interestingly, this poll represents the first concrete indication that a Fine Gael-Fianna Fail coalition might finally come to pass. After all, the late John Kelly described such a coalition as a “match made in heaven”. With Labour TDs and MEPs siding with the EU in seeking to impose a financial transaction tax on Ireland which would destroy the IFSC, the option has some attractions.

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