Election 2011 produced one of the most astonishing results of any general election in Irish history.
Fianna Fáil, the major part of governments throughout the 20th century and for all of the 21st century up to this year, was reduced to 20 seats, losing an astounding 58 seats since the 2007 election.
So where did it all go wrong for a party which turns 85 this year? People can blame the economic crisis but that alone is too simplistic. The roots go back to revelations about the late Charles Haughey and were compounded by the stories and innuendos surrounding Bertie Ahern. Then there was the apparent difficulty which Brian Cowen had in communicating to the masses in everyday language. All this was followed by the arrival of the IMF.
The litany of retirements did not do any favours either and while it is possible that high profile casualties would still have occurred, it is also possible that some of the high profile TDs could have scraped back. If the economic crisis was to blame then it is surprising that the Minister most identified with it, Brian Lenihan, still came in with over 15 per cent of first preference votes to take the last seat in Dublin West, although he did suffer a loss of almost 18 per cent since 2007.
Micheál Martin’s election as the eighth leader of Fianna Fáil in January by a final margin of over two to one gave a bounce to the party, but was too late to have a real effect in the general election. Significantly, one of the first statements made by the new leader said that he was “very sorry for the mistakes we made as a party and I made as a Minister”. But it will take more than an apology for Fianna Fáil to have any hope of a resurrection into what it often called its “natural role in government”. It is often said that a new broom sweeps well, and if that be so, Fianna Fáil could become a party of government again within the next decade. It will depend on how the parliamentary party responds and deals with the real issues, particularly in the broad economic area.
Of the 20 TDs returned, three are newcomers (Barry Cowen, Charlie McConalogue and Robert Troy) and, perhaps significantly, none of the party’s TDs are female. Notwithstanding that, there is a good mix of talent and age. Five have significant ministerial experience (Micheál Martin, Brian Lenihan, Éamon Ó Cuiv, Willie O’Dea and Brendan Smith). They are joined by six with Minister of State experience (John Browne, Dara Calleary, Billy Kelleher, Seamus Kirk, Michael Kitt and John McGuinness) and six with previous Dáil experience (Niall Collins, Timmy Dooley, Sean Fleming, Michael McGrath, Michael Moynihan and Sean Ó Fearghail).
Arguably, age is probably going to mean that the most experienced members will not serve in government again, but they can certainly play a big role as the (only just) major party in opposition.
The appointment of Brian Lenihan as spokesman on finance is probably justified because of his recent experience in the finance department. Similarly, the return of John McGuinness to the front line as spokesman on small business is inspired. Deputy McGuinness is well known for taking no prisoners in his wish to get things moving and his forthright language is sometimes mistaken for belligerence. But as a practitioner and promoter of small business, his credentials are beyond reproach.
Éamon Ó Cuív was widely regarded as an effective Minister in his social protection portfolio, having languished a little in his previous role as community minister.
The former national poll topper, Willie O’Dea, who took the third seat in Limerick City, saw his first preference vote plummet from almost 39 per cent in 2007 to less than 15 per cent. Having previously served as long-time Minister for Defence, he will be keen to show his mettle as spokesman in the vital areas of enterprise, jobs and innovation.
Former Ceann Comhairle Seamus Kirk, who was automatically returned, will be well able for his brief on horticulture and rural affairs given his farming background. Accountant Sean Fleming, who served as Chair of the Oireachtas Finance Committee, is one who can get to grips with the challenging area of public sector reform. The only one of three Kitts to be re-elected, Micheál, has a double job as spokesman on housing, planning and Gaeltacht affairs, and Leas-Cheann Comhairle of the Dáil.
Of the newcomers to the front bench, Michael McGrath (from the only constituency with two Fianna Fáil TDs, the other being Micheál Martin) has been kept close to the leader in his role dealing with public expenditure and financial sector reform. Westmeath postmaster Brendan Troy will have the chance to use his local knowledge with the arts and heritage brief, while former Fianna Fáil HQ official and farmer Charlie McConalogue takes on the crucial role of spokesman for children with a possible children’s referendum later this year.
Given that Fianna Fáil was in continuous government for 14 years, it will be interesting to see what new and innovative policies emerge. But on the other hand, freed from the constraints of constitutional office, a viable opposition party with an eye to the future can open up boundaries and think outside the box while ministers and their departments can sometimes be stymied in that respect.
The election manifesto gives huge insights into the nature of future policies, but now that election fever is over, the real work begins. There is no doubt that the most pressing matters for both opposition and government are the economy, jobs and health. Fianna Fáil will need to be very innovative and thoroughly realistic if it is to chart its vision for the country from its precarious perch on the opposition benches.
The ordinary members of Fianna Fáil must be really disenchanted. Fianna Fáil in the past was always known as the party with the best organisation, with tentacles in every aspect of society. But that slowly withered since the closing years of the 20th century and allowed other parties to get in and occupy what would have been traditional Fianna Fáil territory throughout Ireland.
But it does seem that the fight-back is starting. A new leader in the second decade of the 21st century has given every indication that he has the energy and commitment to take Fianna Fáil out of the depths and to once again, rise like the Phoenix to assume a major role in governing Ireland. But whether that will be five years, or more as some people suggest, or indeed ever, will depend on how well the “natural party of government” performs in its inexperienced role in opposition.
For the future, Fianna Fáil members might do well to resurrect the well-known maxim of the late Brian Lenihan Senior: “No problem.”
Frank Lahiffe is a public affairs consultant and former Fianna Fáil ministerial adviser.