An Taoiseach’s cuckoo clock: taking Fianna Fáil from 17.3% in 2011 to 27% in 2019 and back down to 18% today

A year ago we were told by those close to the Fianna Fáil leader that the persistantly poor poll numbers were due to disunity and sniping at the leader. So why… after 10 months of back benchers holding their tongues…. are the party’s poll figures still stuck in the mid to high teens? The party fared disastrously in Feb 2020…. but that figure now looks like a long distant high water mark.     

Orson Welles as Harry Lime – Switzerland had 500 years of brotherly love and peace. And what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

Exactly two years ago, on June 15th 2020 in a column entitled Better Never Than Late, I stated that there were then three absolute truths for Fianna Fáil. Truths that highlighted how misguided the leadership’s strategy of putting Fine Gael back into government was as it ignored the reality that that Fianna Fáil had options and leverage.

I revisited those three truths several times in both late 2020 and early 2021, but it has occurred to me that I have not examined them again lately.

The three truths are:

Truth 1. Fianna Fáil TDs do not want a second election.

Truth 2. Almost no government can be formed without FF involvement.

Truth 3. Micheál Martin has fought his last election as party leader.

So let’s look at these again in the light of all that has happened over the past two years and see if they each hold equally true today.

The first one – the fact Fianna Fáil TDs do not want a second election – has changed, but only in the sense that they do not want the next general election to come before it is absolutely necessary.

Back in June 2020 the fear of a snap second general election that year was a powerful impetus in driving Fianna Fáil representatives – with a few very honourable exceptions – to back a deal with Fine Gael and the Greens. The fear was not without substance as polls taken in June 2020 by the Irish Times and Red C each had Fianna Fáil on a miserable 13%.

With the most recent eight opinion polls showing Fianna Fáil on 18% (mean) / 16.5% (median), a Fianna Fáil T.D.’s prospect for survival is only marginally higher than it was two years ago. It is only fair to point out that this truth applies to very many other TDs, across the Dáil.

So, this truth still holds true, though should be amended to Fianna Fáil TDs do not want an election before 2025. (A potentially forlorn hope, as this does not allow for “events” and the coming year will likely bring a number of events which could send some T.D.s scurrying to the Níl lobbies on key votes).

And so, to truth two: Almost no government can be formed without FF involvement. This truth only holds if there is no election and the Dáil numbers remain the same.

If there is an election, then it becomes an outside possibility, at best. If Fianna Fáil were to get 16 – 18% at the next election then it might hope to win 30 seats in an increased 176 seat Dáil.

This may seem acceptable to some sitting TDs, but it includes a massive assumption, namely that the party does not experience a repeat of 2011, when it suffered a major seat penalty – i.e. winning 17.4% of the first preference vote, but only 12% of the seats. Were this to happen then you could see at least a dozen sitting Fianna Fáil TDs bite the dust as the party’s Dáil representation is slashed to around 22/23 seats.

So, even if everything were to go its way, the best that Fianna Fáil can hope for on the basis of its currently polling trajectory is its second worst electoral performance, ever. As I discussed back in March 2020, for Fianna Fáil, this is like 2011 all over again… only worse.

So, truth 2, no longer applies.

Now for the main one, Truth 3: Micheál Martin has fought his last election as party leader. Back in 2020 I said that whether the next election is in 3 months, 2 years or 4.5 years, Martin’s last race as leader has been run. Clearly those timelines have changed, but I still think the basic premise is true, though I know that many senior Fianna Fáil figures outside the circle of leadership favourites now doubt it.

I still think it holds true, but there is a clear uncertainty about the manner and timing of his departure. Will he go quietly at the last minute, either to take on a role in the EU or to prepare his challenge for the Áras (as has been speculated by some of his more adoring colleagues) – or will he be pushed out?  While all the signs right now point strongly to the former, I am doubtful.

The notion that party leaders get to pick the precise time of their departure and leave office unaided is historically inaccurate. Lynch, Haughey, Reynolds, Ahern, and Cowen all left under various forms of pressure and at timings that were not of their choosing alone.

Is Martin such an exceptional leader that he can master his own departure? From where I am standing, he isn’t. He has the benefit of heading up a more depleted and quiescent party than any of his predecessors, but that’s a failing, not an achievement – a failing that should warrant a speedy end to his leadership.

But what has all this quiescence gained for his party?

A year or so ago the leader’s most loyal devotees were blaming the party’s poor poll ratings on the many criticisms of the leader emanating from within the parliamentary party. All this disharmony and disunity, they argued, was hurting the party in the polls, and stopping the massive recovery in fortune that the dear leader had planned for the party.

For various reasons those public criticisms stopped about 9-10 months ago. Those who had previously relayed stories of dissatisfaction to journalist in named and unnamed briefings stopped. The critics went quiet. Silent.

And guess what happened?

Lo and behold… the media and averages of Fianna Fáil’s polling ratings stayed exactly where they were – in the high-teens. There was no surge. There was no sustained bounce in the polls. The eight polls conducted a year ago, before the Pax Backbench-ia, give you a mean of 17.3% and a median of 17.5% – almost identical with where it stands today.

It’s like Orson Welles famous observation as Harry Lime in the Third Man:

In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, and they had 500 years of democracy and peace. And what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

Micheál Martin’s cuckoo clock has seen him bring it from 17.3% in 2011 to 27% in the 2019 local elections and all the way back down to 17/18% today. He will probably see out his term as Taoiseach safely, without a challenge or a heave, but I’d wager that all bets are off after that.

Not even his greatest admirer sincerely believes Martin can ever become Taoiseach again. The very best Martin himself can hope for is to lead the party into its second worst ever result – a result which would surely see his leadership brought to a speedy and brutal end as soon as the final seat count is known.

The next few months are going to be trying for Martin. The uncertainty over the Tánaiste’s future and the fall out of whatever decision is made by the DPP will not make things easier.

Inflation and the cost-of-living pressures will make the coming round of public pay talks extremely fraught – a prospect not aided by changes of leadership in the departments of Taoiseach and potentially Finance/Public Expenditure. Will the Green Party be able to keep all its backbenchers on side for the tough decisions ahead?

Will Green TDs who see their seats under direct threat from Sinn Féin be happy to cross public sector picket lines and vote in the government lobbies?

Add to this the political uncertainty in the North and the deepening distrust and tensions between Dublin and London as the spotlight on Dublin’s future plans on North/South and East/West relations become increasing more focused on what the current Foreign Minister and incoming Taoiseach think, rather than Micheál Martin… especially as Martin’s 2020 choice of departments means that Fianna Fáil will have no day-to-day operational input into Northern policy post December 15th.

So – in my view Truth 3 still holds – and of the three truths I posited exactly two years ago, it’s the one that now matters most.  

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