There are few people more synonymous with Fianna Fáil than Willie O’Dea, who was first elected for the party in 1982. He has served under Charles Haughey, Albert Reynolds, Bertie Ahern, Brian Cowen, and Micheál Martin. And now, after forty years, he says, he might quit:
Fianna Fáil Limerick TD Willie O’Dea has threatened to quit the party and run as an Independent, rather than support another coalition government anchored by a confidence and supply deal…
…“We have lost ground by being indistinguishable from Fine Gael,” he said, “If we do lose more ground and the party was [again] proposing to go into coalition with anybody, I wouldn’t be voting for that coalition.
What’s notable about this is not necessarily the threat to quit the party. That threat, if you read the full piece linked above, is highly conditional on Fianna Fáil proposing to enter another coalition after the next election, which is optimistic, based on current polling.
The more notable thing is that it is something O’Dea would consider at all, under any circumstances. The man has been nothing but loyal for his entire career: He lived through the tribunals, and the revelations about Haughey. He lived through the collapse of the economy, and the Brian Cowen Government. He has stuck with the party as it zigged and zagged on issue after issue, through disappointing election after disappointing election. He is many things, is Willie O’Dea. But he is not a quitter.
It is reasonable to say of anybody that has been in an institution for forty years that they become institutionalised. That is even more true of political parties: They are inherently tribal groups. You spend forty years thinking of Fianna Fáil as “your” tribe, and it becomes almost impossible, psychologically, to leave.
So, in this case, the grievances clearly run deep. As well they might.
Because on the substance, Willie O’Dea is right: Fianna Fáil has become, in Government, functionally indistinguishable from Fine Gael. If you are a Fianna Fáiler reading this – and there are plenty of you – then answer this question honestly: What policy of Government that is prominent and well known is clearly, and unambiguously, a “Fianna Fáil” policy?
How does this Government, of which Fianna Fáil is a member, differ from the previous Government, which was Fine Gael by itself? It has become more extreme on Climate Change, certainly, but that is clearly a function of the Green Party, not Fianna Fáil. On almost every other issue, this Government is adhering to the policy and priority of Mr. Varadkar’s Government before it.
The trouble is this: It is about to get much worse. These past two years were FF’s big opportunity, with Mr. Martin leading the Government, to show how FF could deliver change. By the end of the year, Mr. Varadkar will be Taoiseach again. He will be the face of any Fianna Fáil achievement, should any arise.
Hardcore FFers might plead that they have been unlucky that their spell at the helm of Government coincided with the pandemic, meaning an unusual unity in politics over the past two years, which made it hard to differentiate themselves. But that is entirely backwards: As leader of the Government, Mr. Martin had a chance to lead on the pandemic. Most of the time, he subcontracted that job out to Dr. Holohan.
The fundamental question for Fianna Fáil now is this: How does it differentiate itself, at the next election, from Fine Gael? The very real risk it faces is becoming the new Labour Party, where the choice to lead the Government, in the voters minds, is Fine Gael or Sinn Fein, and Fianna Fáil is only relevant as a potential coalition partner for either. Supporters for both of the two big parties will declare that a vote for FF is a vote to put the other one in power. Both will be able to do so convincingly, because no matter what Mr. Martin says, people will be reminded that he broke a solemn promise not to go into Government with Fine Gael last time.
In many ways, the best long term hope for FF is to be taken out of the equation at the next election altogether: A comprehensive beating that consigns them to opposition, where they can figure out what, and who, they are for.
Because, at the moment, they haven’t a clue. When people like Willie O’Dea are thinking of abandoning ship, the thing is very nearly sunk.