There was, in case you missed it, an opinion poll at the weekend, in the Sunday Business Post. Fine Gael is once again the most popular party in Ireland. Sinn Fein is roughly standing still from where it was at the recent election. Fianna Fáil is, well, hoping that the lockdown won’t prevent a priest from coming to administer the last rites:
Poll results out today in @businessposthq in case you haven’t seen them.
FW 23rd-29th April, vs Mar
Fine Gael. 35% +1
Sinn Fein. 27% -1
Fianna Fáil. 14% -4
Independents 8% +3
The Green Party 6% +1
Labour 3% =
Social Democrats 3% =
SolidarityPBP 2% =
Aontú 1% -1
Renua 1% +1
— RED C Research (@REDCResearch) May 3, 2020
Fianna Fáil’s miserable showing probably has a number of factors behind it, plenty of the party’s own making, and some beyond its control.
The biggest problem it has in the short term is the ridiculous position in which it has placed itself during the present crisis. Because it is trying to negotiate a new partnership Government with Fine Gael, it finds itself in the odd position of having to be an opposition party that cannot loudly oppose the Government, since it is trying to cosy up to the Government. This means that the mantle of opposition to Leo Varadkar has been handed, on a platter, to Sinn Fein.
At the same time, Fianna Fáil is not actually in Government, so it does not get any credit for the perceived successes of the Government, or the “rally around the flag” effect that may be elevating Fine Gael. The party has somehow managed to manoeuvre itself into a prolonged position of being neither Government nor opposition, neither for change, nor against it, and with pronouncements on the crisis that are so mild and colourless that they could comfortably be made by a Fine Gael backbencher without anybody noticing.
Micheál Martin’s defenders – the few of them who remain – would argue that this is simply a short term state of affairs, and that when a Government is announced in a couple of weeks, and Mr. Martin is elevated to Taoiseach, things will improve for Fianna Fáil. Under this theory, when Mr. Martin replaces Mr. Varadkar in the Taoiseach’s office and starts operating the levers of power, the credit presently being given to Fine Gael for the management of the crisis (whether that credit is deserved or not) will start flowing to Fianna Fáil. And with FF managing the recovery and laying into Sinn Fein, things will improve dramatically.
There are, of course, several things wrong with that theory. The first is this: Fine Gael has no incentive, whatever, to hand the Taoiseach’s office over to Mr. Martin. In fact, it’s the perfect pretext for Fine Gael to collapse the coalition talks. “We’re simply not out of the crisis period”, they’ll say, “and changing personnel in the middle of a crisis, with all the upheaval that will cause in vital relationships, is an unreasonable demand”.
And what will Fianna Fáil’s answer to that be? “We’re the bigger party, our man should be Taoiseach?”
It will sound ridiculous and petty. Because it will be ridiculous and petty.
And of course, the problem for either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael is that the party that has the mantle of Taoiseach in a coalition between the two will define the coalition in the public mind. If Mr. Martin isn’t Taoiseach, then Fianna Fáil will be the third party in Irish politics in terms of stature, status, prominence, and popularity. Probably for many decades.
An interesting question for Fianna Fáil members, if they’re doubting any of this: When was the last time, in Irish, or European history, that a party that entered a coalition Government less popular at the time it entered Government than it’s coalition partner, emerged from that Government more popular than it’s coalition partner? In other words, how can FF hope to gain support at the expense of Fine Gael while in Government with Fine Gael? It would be a historic first.
The second issue facing Fianna Fáil is also entirely of its own making, and it’s this: It’s made itself, by choice, the most obviously untrustworthy party in Ireland.
That’s not an accusation, either, it’s a simple statement of objective fact. In the aftermath of the election, no other political party or movement has done a complete 180 degree turn on it’s pre-election position. Fine Gael, while not keen on working with Fianna Fáil, did not rule out doing so in the election. Sinn Fein similarly made no embarrassing promises to not talk to anybody. Nor did any of the smaller parties. The only party that made a cast-iron commitment not to enter Government with Fine Gael or Sinn Fein was Fianna Fáil – and now, just weeks later, it’s practically grovelling at Mr Varadkar’s feet just to be allowed even to smell those nice leather seats in the Government Audis.
One problem is that the party has internalised the notion that “political maturity” is the same thing as “breaking our promises”, when those two things are not the same thing at all. You can practically hear the cogs turning in their brains, saying that “yes, we may have promised in the election not to work with Fine Gael, but the voters have to understand that Ireland needs a Government.”
But has Sinn Fein been politically immature? Has Fine Gael? Both parties have broadly stuck to their pre-election promises and been rewarded for it in different ways. Both are now twice as popular as Fianna Fáil. Would Fianna Fáil really have been so harshly punished, if, for example, it had tried to assemble the largest single bloc of support in the Dáil without either Sinn Fein or Fine Gael – by enticing independents, for example – and put pressure on Fine Gael to provide confidence and supply? It is hard to think so.
The most terrifying thing, of course, for Fianna Fáil, is now the prospect of a second election. What will it say in such an election? “We need Fine Gael out”? That will sound hollow, when the same party has just spent six months trying and failing to put them back in. And in the meantime, its leverage in coalition talks is disappearing rapidly, because Fine Gael can now hold the prospect of a second election over Mr. Martin like the Sword of Damocles. “What’s that? You want me to resign and hand over to you as Taoiseach? Let’s see what the voters have to say about that”.
And so, Fianna Fáil finds itself with the prospect of choosing between various humiliations. Take the issue of the Green Party, for example: Fine Gael, negotiating from a position of strength, are able to issue warnings to the Greens that they will defend farmers:
Simon Coveney: ‘Farming can’t be decimated for Green's 7% emissions demand’ https://t.co/BlS9Cja40l
— Irish Examiner (@irishexaminer) May 1, 2020
While Fianna Fáil TDs are reduced to this:
I’m glad the Greens have entered government formation talks. From this rural Fianna Fáil TD’s perspective, it’s utter BS that Green policies are bad for rural Ireland or farmers. There needs to be a focus on sustainability and biodiversity. This is a perfect opportunity.
— Christopher O’Sullivan TD (@COSullivanTD) May 3, 2020
Those two tweets sum up the problem. If you support Fine Gael, at least you know – for all their many flaws – that they’ll fight for farmers. If you support Fianna Fáil, you’ll just get people who cheerlead the policies of another party.
Fianna Fáil died, intellectually, many years ago. The party has no sense of what it’s actually for, or what it exists to achieve. What we’re witnessing now is the slow death of Fianna Fáil as any kind of political force. It’s all entirely of their own making.
And in the present situation, of course, none of us will be able to attend the funeral.