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Revising (Fianna Fáil’s) recent electoral history May 26, 2023

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.

Gerard Howlin in The Irish Times offers a neat example of retrospective analysis attempting to put some shape on events to come to a certain conclusion. For example he writes about Micheál Martin’s leadership of Fianna Fáil and argues:

With 26.92 per cent of the vote in 2019, Fianna Fáil emerged as the largest party in local government but simultaneously ended an electoral recovery begun in the 2016 general election. On the same day Sinn Féin reached its recent nadir with 9.48 per cent of the local election vote.

Three TDs were elected to the European Parliament and Fine Gael in government lost all three byelections. It contributed to an early election in February 2020, and the rest is history.

The paradox is that good results in June 2019 and subsequent byelections prompted Martin to overplay his hand and overstay the public’s welcome for his confidence and supply agreement with Fine Gael. He never recovered political momentum, but he has played a weak hand skilfully.

He has remade Fianna Fáil from a party with pretensions of national leadership into a reduced but successful vehicle for its leader. This reverses the normal relationship between leader and party. It is delivering for him and offering negative returns for Fianna Fáil.

Consider that last. Martin has ‘remade FF from a party with pretentious of national leadership into a reduced but successful vehicle for its leader’? That seems to ignore the history of Fianna Fáil entirely from the mid-2000s onward. Surely it was voters who remade Fianna Fáil, eviscerating it at election after election. I’m no fan of Martin but, given the manner in which the former Fianna Fáil front bench was ejected from politics by the electorate in 2011 he was the only one standing with even a vestige of authority. I’m not convinced he’s been a particularly good leader for that party, but I can’t think of an alternative one, bar perhaps our beloved Minister for Finance and he only more recently, who might plausibly play that part any better. 

Really I suspect that Fianna Fáil’s trajectory has been one of making the best of a terrible situation for them, one where they at one election collapsed as a national political force. One might say that it hasn’t done particularly well, but then again few would argue that Fianna Fáil is about to wither away entirely. And there has been some mild progress. 

And how’s this for a curious take:

The bigger risk, but the ultimate accolade, would be to do as he says and fight the next election. In the aftermath he will know if a government can be formed from all others except Sinn Féin, and he can be taoiseach again, for a turn. The odds are long, but the prize is historic.

More likely, less palatable, but even more historic, would be to lead Fianna Fáil in behind Sinn Féin. It could have been the opposite in 2020. But he sold the pass. What remains are myriad opportunities for Micheál Martin, including a walk in the park.

Is this the making of a Dolchstoßlegende stab in the back myth around Martin’s leadership of Fianna Fáil, albeit one which was a self-inflicted stab in the back, by Martin not going for broke in late 2019? 

One needs to look at the historical record to see how plausible the idea is. The local elections were held in May 2019, the General election was held in February 2020. That’s not a lot of time. Yes, Fianna Fáil gained 26.92% of the vote at the local elections, as against 25.26 for Fine Gael. But keep in mind that Fianna Fáil’s increase was all of 1.72%! Yes, Sinn Féin lost a raft of seats and saw its poll ratings dip, but by 5.68% and down to 9.48%. Perhaps Howlin thinks all this presaged a new dawn for Fianna Fáil but I’m sceptical. 

More instructive is the polling during 2019 and early 2020. To say that the polling was mixed for Fianna Fáil would be too kind. Even during May, the month of the local elections, Fianna Fáil only achieved parity with Fine Gael once. For the B&A, Sunday Times poll of 14th May where both parties were on 28%. Note that this is a little more than the polling result Fianna Fáil gained at the locals. For the rest of that month polls had FF lower than their rival. It is true that Sinn Féin’s vote was consistently lower than the other two, but with a degree of variability oscillating across 2019 between early 20s and no lower than 11%. During May alone different polls from different polling companies showed it between 13% and 19%. In 2018 it had gone as high as 24%. 

Perhaps Martin did stay too long in the confidence and supply agreement. The overall poll of polls graph suggests Sinn Féin was declining from highs in 2018 through 2019 (well in advance of the locals) and then, in the autumn of 2019 began to firm up its support and then began to ascent rapidly as 2019 turned into 2020. But, it’s not quite as clear-cut as that. The only month of polling where SF did not return numbers in the high teens or twenties was in June and July when there were but three polls and it was on 12% and 14%  and 12% respectively. By September it had reached 20% in one poll, in October 15%, in November 17% and in December 20% as well. Granted there was a poll in November where SF was on 11%, again suggesting volatility but volatility in a broad range. 

Yet even there, consider this. In January 2020 Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin were both on 24% in one poll. Worse for Howlin’s thesis, periodically Fianna Fáil was nudging 30% – as in June, July, September, October, December and a clear run through January 2020. 

Look at it in those terms and Martin’s approach was working brilliantly. At least if the idea was that Sinn Féin was to be the minor party and assuming that Fianna Fáil had agency in terms of reducing SF’s vote share.

The point is that Fianna Fáil wasn’t simply functioning politically in its positions in relation to Sinn Féin. It also had to consider what would happen with regard to Fine Gael. And here the record becomes more mixed because just as Fianna Fáil was doing well across those months outlined directly above, so was Fine Gael, as well or better. I’ve noted the situation in May 2019. But for Fine Gael September, October, November and December brought impressive polling with them in or around and sometimes above 30%. 

Oddly it was January 2020 where things began to fall apart. With them consistently five or six percentage points behind FF. 

But by then Sinn Féin was in the ascendant. 

One can almost have a degree of sympathy for Martin, attempting to work in a political environment where it’s not simply a single rival in the form of Fine Gael but also another party again in the shape of Sinn Féin ready to exploit any weakness or similarity between the so-called ‘centrist’ parties.

Let’s work through what appears to be Howlin’s logic. 

What would have happened after the local elections had Martin collapsed the supply and confidence agreement? Would a grateful nation have clasped Fianna Fáil to them electorally or would they have seen that as a renunciation of the ‘serious politics’ (whatever we may think of such politics) that Martin had sought to portray and would this have seen some Fianna Fáil support go to Fine Gael? I think that likely. Worse it might also have seen some Fianna Fáil support go to Sinn Féin as it did anyhow. The chances of this playing out largely as it did play out were very great. 

Moreover, and I think this is crucial, that variability in the SF vote across 2019 suggests that there was an appetite, perhaps no more than that, amongst a good cohort of voters to shift to that party if given the opportunity. The fact that wasn’t taken up at the local elections is interesting. Why not? Perhaps the prominence of Mary Lou McDonald during the General election and directly before was key? Though let’s keep in mind the very curious Green surge that manifested earlier during that contest too and brought that party to its largest parliamentary cohort in the Republic. That suggests that there was a willingness on part of a section of voters to break away from the traditional parties depending on the coherence of the alternatives offered. And quite a large section at that given it managed to people not just the GP but also SF to hitherto undreamed of highs. 

Take all this in the round and I think Howlin’s case is implausible. It gifts too much to Martin and ignores the broader context. Martin far from remaking Fianna Fáil into a smaller leader driven party (by the way, Ahern, Haughey, surely they were no slouches in terms of shaping FF to their ends?), did about as well as he could. His choices in the aftermath of the local elections were not great. He could jump from the confidence and supply agreement but in doing so would have burned political capital he could ill afford to do given the parity with Fine Gael. And there was no guarantee that Sinn Féin would replicate the poor local election performance of that year.

In any event, does it matter? If Fianna Fail’s chances hinged on the outcome of the local elections that suggests that even in Howlin’s framing the situation was far far too contingent on singular events and that tells us everything we need to know about where Fianna Fáil stands today in the context of Irish politics. 


1. irishelectionliterature - May 26, 2023

In 2016, Fianna Fáil thought they were showing political maturity by entering a Confidence and Supply arrangement with Fine Gael. The main reason this continued was Brexit. Fianna Fáil didn’t anticipate that Brexit would have been such a mess. From talking to people in FF it would have left the arrangement after a year or two over a disagreement with Fine Gael over policy.
So Brexit kept them tied to supporting Fine Gael. The longer that went on, the more the narrative that there wasn’t much difference between the parties increased.
There’s no way Fianna Fáil would have done well in an election while there was still massive Brexit uncertainty, if they had caused it.
Also the longer Confidence and Supply went on , the longer questions were being asked by the electorate as to what policy changes Fianna Fáil had got for their support. It was a fiver on pensions but literally nothing on the housing crisis.

Liked by 1 person

WorldbyStorm - May 26, 2023

That’s a brilliant point, IEL. Brexit. Spot on, FF would have been eviscerated at the polls in late 2019 not least given Johnson became Tory leader in July 2019 and called a GE for December 2019. I should have remembered it, but that Howlin who wrote the original piece didn’t says it all.


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