What next for the Soldiers of Destiny? It is a thought that will be dwelling in the minds of Fianna Fáil members and supporters across Ireland. Let me be frank, the election result left us in shock. There was a quiet expectation that the party was back, and that as night follows day, so Micheál Martin and Fianna Fáil would be leading the next government with a comfortable number of seats over the other parties.
Even those of us black sheep who returned to the flock were hopeful. It was pure arithmetic. We had a good day out in 2016, better than most expected. It was reasonable to conclude that after four years work and an abysmal Fine Gael government, there would an increase in seats. That was not to be. I will go to my grave with the time and place I saw the exit poll etched in my memory. Many readers will take great glee from that, such is the nature of modern Irish politics. I will leave it to others to conduct post mortems of the 2020 General Election, this discourse is more concerned with the formation of the government, specifically the prospect of a Fianna Fáil led government with Fine Gael as the coalition partner.
There has been much hot air and comment on social media about the potential of Fianna Fáil going in with Fine Gael. I spent almost ten years as an active member of the party, in a variety of roles from ordinary Joe Soap knocking doors, to secretary of my local constituency organisation, and latterly as president of the youth wing, sitting on the National Executive. I do not pretend to know the innermost thoughts of the membership, but I do know what the members are like and their characteristics. Here are some of the considerations that will come into play.
Firstly, the mindset of many members is important. These are people who have often given decades of voluntary work to the party for no personal gain. They are community people, business people, family people, your neighbours and your friends. They are fiercely loyal to the party, and (at least in public) to the leader. They abhor Fine Gael, and have campaigned to get Leo Varadkar and co out. It is a particularly strong sentiment outside of Dublin. As was explained to me, a naive Dub, in rural and regional Ireland there’s only Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, and you’re either one or the other. The numbers bear this out. Excluding Dublin, in the 2019 Local Elections, 61% of seats went to Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Another 20% of seats went independent – but locally it would be perceived that certain independents would be from either genepool. This dichotomy is existential for these members and forms part of their identity as a Fianna Fáiler. No other parties or groups enter the equation in any meaningful way, which makes the Sinn Féin surge in seat numbers harder to accept. The old order is up ended, nationally at least.
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, Fianna Fáil members are deeply pragmatic. They are members of the most electorally successful political party in the history of the State, and know the benefits of being in government. The majority of them are not driven by ideology or hard “principles” in the sense that many members of left wing parties are. Members do have values, but these are not necessarily strictly delineated. They want outcomes on health, housing, and everything else, and to achieve this they know that Fianna Fáil has to be making the decisions. This is the longest period that Fianna Fáil has not been in government since it’s foundation in 1926, and the pragmatic instinct will be very important if and when members come to ratify any agreement. In the wake of 2011, the leadership spelled out that it would be at least a decade until Fianna Fáil would be returned to government. The question for the voting members is can they live with the prospect that it might now be fifteen or twenty years before they again see Fianna Fáil policies being implemented by Fianna Fáil ministers?
If the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party does strike a deal with any party or group, selling it to the membership will largely depend on elected representatives. Local councillors and TDs have the relationship with members on the ground and usually a degree of influence over them. For any agreement to be successfully adopted, it will require these representatives not simply to sit back and see what happens but to actively and assiduously get the vote out and get them to vote the right way. There may be disquiet on social media from some quarters, but the thoughts (and ministerial prospects) of their local man or woman will not be an insignificant factor in members deliberations.
This whole situation is new ground for Fianna Fáil. After 2011, “Renewal” became the buzzword and organisational reforms were implemented to notionally empower paid up members and give them more control over party affairs. Fundamental changes to the selection of the party leader and the requirement for a vote on coalition agreements were included in this suite of reforms. It would be bitterly ironic if the changes introduced during Micheál Martin’s tenure ultimately proved to be his undoing.
Political oracles are frequently wrong, so I will keep my counsel on how events will pan out, however it is clear that whatever happens we are very much in uncharted territory.
James T. Doyle was President of Ógra Fianna Fáil, and a member of the Party’s Ard Comhairle (national executive), from 2016 to 2018