‘If Fianna Fáil fail to run a candidate in the upcoming Presidential election, they are effectively admitting that they are a dead party.’
This statement, while sweeping, is one I will stand over even if Fianna Fáil manage to pull off an amazing resurrection in the next general election; there is no rational basis for failing to run a candidate in the current circumstances, the only reasons can be fear and short-sightedness. That Fianna Fáil must, if it hopes to continue as a viable entity in Irish politics, enter what will be the main political event over the next few months should be self-evident, and the reasons I give below are just some of the arguments that can be made in favour of running a candidate.
Before I begin, I must note that I am not a Fianna Fáil supporter, I have never been a member, and I have no current intention to join. I was however, Dublin Chair of the Young Progressive Democrats, a witness to the deterioration of the Progressive Democrats and present at the vote taken to wind up the party; it is on this foundation that I base my remarks. I am not writing this for the benefit of Fianna Fáil, but in the (most likely vain) hope of in some way delaying their replacement by more extremist elements, until a new, properly constituted party with rational policies can rise to displace them. Ireland needs an opposition, and frankly at this moment in time, and for the forseeable future, the alternatives to Fianna Fáil are worse than Fianna Fáil.
The first point to note, and this must be made clear, is that Fianna Fáil cannot win this election – it would be an astounding upset if they managed to do so. What Fianna Fáil seem to fail to understand however, is a truism that every small party takes for granted: An election can be a victory even if your candidate is not the person who gains the office. Even if one cannot win an election, it is essential to take part, or be sidelined from the discussion and debate that surrounds the race; if the party has no dog in the fight, it will be effectively barring itself from most public debate for a period of weeks, during which public interest in politics will be at a high, and when national issues, and the merits of a particular candidate, will take precedence over the party brands.
And it is unavoidable that the Fianna Fáil brand will act as an albatross around the candidate’s neck, reducing their vote considerably and hampering them in any public debate. However, the solution to this problem is not to sit quietly and wait as long as possible before raising one’s head above the parapet, in the hope that the public will forgive and forget – simply, frankly, the public will not do so. This election provides Fianna Fáil with an opportunity to at least partially heal their brand.
The candidates in this election are, as they now stand, woeful (it is beyond the scope of this piece to go through each candidate and detail why they are unsuitable, but I have no doubt it has been done already by numerous writers). This dearth of talent is Fianna Fáil’s chance: if the party nominates any good candidate, not one that is the highest in seniority, or has served his time, or is liked internally, but a candidate who will make a good and capable President that the Irish people could be proud of, then Fianna Fáil will poll respectably, and have a realistic chance of outpolling Gay Mitchell, the candidate of the largest party in Ireland. For once, the good of the nation, and the selfish good of the political party are in sync, and Fianna Fáil can only profit if they can make the election a choice between voting for the Fianna Fáil candidate, or voting for a clearly inferior option. In the previous Presidential elections this would not have been possible but the general low quality of candidates in this election makes it so. The question of the election should be, and more importantly could be: will Ireland cut off it’s nose to spite its face?
A huge number of people have sworn that they will never vote Fianna Fáil again, and most of them made admirable progress in carrying out this promise at the last election – Fianna Fáil were left with 19 TDs, few of them able media performers and several of them planning to retire rather than run again. The party cannot enter the next election as tainted as it is now or its seats could fall to single digits. Fianna Fáil need to get the Irish people back into the habit of voting for them, and putting forward the best candidate in a race that focuses mainly on the attributes of the particular candidate, is the best opportunity to do so. The stigma will stop them winning, but it will still allow them to poll well and do respectably compared to the other candidates – the party is the third smallest in the Dáil, there is no shame in not coming first when the other parties hold literal multiples of your seats. Fianna Fáil need to understand that their position has changed and they are now a smaller party; they need to tear up the old rulebook and standards, and look at what the smaller parties in Ireland do to simply survive.
Another advantage of running a candidate is that it allows the party machine to begin to work again. At the moment the stories emanating from Fianna Fáil are so similar to the end of the Progressive Democrats as to be uncanny: empty meetings, positions going unfilled or filled by acclamation, people speaking heartily of rebuilding at one meeting, being subdued at the next, then failing to turn up to the one after. And above all else, the slow decay as members wait longer and longer for something to be done. The party is, by all accounts, withering slowly in many constituencies, and left without any experienced campaign-teams in others. This atrophy is not a temporary phenomenon, it is a cycle that feeds itself, and if the canvassers are not called to arms before 2014 (the next local and European elections), then there will be nothing left.
It must be emphasised that Mr. Martin cannot take the approach that Mr. Kenny did of visiting every branch and boosting the party that way; while this is important, all the internal team building in the world will not save a party whose members feel afraid to show their colours in public. Mr. Kenny had time to play Mother Teresa to every member; Mr. Martin does not have such luxury as more and more of the party members realise that everything has gotten significantly harder, and that they are unlikely to regain much of the ground they have lost – many face the prospect that they may not be able to keep the ground they have now. The time to begin revitalising Fianna Fáil as a whole is now, and it begins by running a strong, decent candidate for President.
Furthermore, Canvassing when you are disliked almost universally is a completely different experience from canvassing when you have a large support base, as many Fianna Fáil canvassers found to their dismay at the last election; different tactics and approaches must be used. It is far harder to find canvassers:very often an embattled party must rely on a crack team of canvassers, as opposed to merely rounding up some people from the local Cumann and giving them some paper and some stock lines. If Fianna Fáil are running a good candidate, then not only will the election provide an opportunity for the party machine to be oiled and run rather than deteriorating for three more years, but canvassers can be trained, and can confidently approach the door with a legitimate selling point, making the experience much easier.
In short, running a candidate will allow the party to begin the process of repairing its reputation, galvanise the remaining membership and train canvassers to operate in the vastly different landscape they now face.
If Fianna Fáil decide not to run a candidate in this election, then there are only two possible explanations: either the leadership has decided the party is dead, or the party does not possess, in all its thousands of members, a candidate of sufficient worth and capability to make, with no effective opposition and ample media coverage, a respectable contender for the Áras.
In either case, the party should not limp on till it gradually dies, but should bite the bullet, follow the Progressive Democrats, and end itself.