Derek Mooney: An Interim By-Election Review For Fianna Fáil

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From top: Fianna Fáil TD Jim Callaghan and the party’s Dublin Bay South by-election candidate Deirdre Conroy outside the RDS count centre last Friday; Derek Mooney

A few weeks after the February 2020 election I said that Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin needed to stop and “take a hard look at why his party lost support and seats”. I said it again, several times, over the weeks and months that followed. I even offered the independent review the Australian Labour Party had commissioned into its electoral failure as a template.

I thought it was essential that the party examine why it had done so badly before doing anything precipitative, such as going into government with the party it had promised to put out of office.

The leadership thought otherwise. It felt Fianna Fáil’s best course of action was to get into office and that its political revival would come from the government program for recovery. It seemed to miss the inconvenient truth that this meant giving Fine Gael a veto on Fianna Fáil’s fortunes.

This was one of the main reasons I ended my 40-plus year membership of Fianna Fáil. Why would I knock myself out trying to rebuild a party, when the top Fine Gael brass would have a bigger say in it than grassroot members?

Martin did agree a general election review as part of the package of measures to accompany the membership backing the Programme for Government. Twelve months later, that review has yet to be published. But then, the white paper on reunification that Martin told the Irish Times about in March 2017 is now only four years overdue.

Last November when the Red C/Business Post poll had Fianna Fáil’s support down to 12% I wondered: What is the purpose of now commissioning a report into why you lost 8% support between Sept 2019 and Feb 2020, when the latest polls show the decline today could be as high as 18%?

Last Thursday’s Dublin Bay South result shows the decline from the potential 28% identified in the Sept 2019 Red C Poll is even greater. In a measured but well considered letter to party colleagues circulated on Saturday, Barry Cowen TD said that the party needs all its TDs and Senators gathered in the same room to “reflect, discuss and take on board the message” sent by voters.

He is right.

Fianna Fáil now has a crisis level problem with both relevance and viability. A problem which its leader of over 10 years seems unwilling to address and which some of his Ministers seem blissfully unaware.

So, let me offer this concise independent review of what I think went wrong in the by-election. I offer this as an ex-party member who spent four decades in this and neighbouring constituencies. (NB when I joined, Fianna Fáil held two seats out of three in the old Dublin Rathmines West constituency, so the notion that people in Dublin 2, 4 or 6 are inherently unwilling to vote Fianna Fáil is nonsense.

As for the wider issues… I can send several dozen columns published here over the past two years.

Let me look at the Dublin Bay South by-election campaign an under a couple of headings.

Messaging.

It is not that Fianna Fáil’s by-election messaging was wrong. Quite simply, it had none.

All it said to voters was – vote for us because you voted for us in the past, and you might do so again in the future. All that was missing was, vote for us as your Ma and Da used to.

Worse still, it was trying to run twin-track messaging. While its canvassers and volunteers were out extolling the party’s record in government, party strategists were telling all within earshot that they hadn’t a prayer, and this was all the local TD’s fault.

Not that the messaging was much better from other parties. Fine Gael’s message was vote for us to keep the Provos out. Indeed, they were pounding out that message online and on doors right up to the last hour campaign. Not that it mattered.

Ten days earlier an Irish Times poll blew the FG strategy out of the water. It showed that Ivana Bacik was the challenger, not Lynn Boylan (as I explained last week). Sinn Féin’s vote dropped across large parts of the constituency outside of the canal. I did not see that coming.

Meanwhile, with just two days to go before polling, Fianna Fáil, which had fought the last election saying that no single buyer should be allowed to bulk purchase entire developments, allowed itself to be portrayed as helping vulture and cuckoo funds to profiteer.

That is virtually a textbook example of bad messaging, and it cannot blame the sitting TD, the candidate or the local party organisation for that.

Campaign Strategy

While there was a local strategy on campaign organisation, there was no national campaign strategy. Bad enough that there was no Fianna Fáil national response at the outset to Fine Gael’s this is between us and Sinn Féin, but there was no pivot when the Irish Times poll showed that voters were going to Labour’s Ivana Bacik as the best way to reject the Sinn Féin/Fine Gael best of enemies’ approach.

That poll put Fianna Fáil at 10%, but the party failed to act. It could see that the momentum was with Ivana and there was a distinct risk that moderate voters would increasingly see Bacik as the safest way of frustrating both Sinn Féin and Fine Gael.

Its failure to tackle the false SF vs FG narrative at a national level hurt the by-election campaign. Fianna Fáil must find a counter strategy, and fast, as the best of enemies look like they plan to stick with this stratagem for a while.

Social media.

I could write paragraphs on the problems with the party’s social media strategy, but rather than doing that, look at this compare and contrast video featuring the official Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael Twitter feeds on the eve of polling. Fine Gael tweeted as much material, almost all by-election related, in 4 hours as Fianna Fáil managed over two days, though only a fraction of Fianna Fáil’s tweets were about the by-election.

The party has capable and proficient staff on the payroll, but the party’s problem with crafting clear messaging gives them nothing to work with. You cannot have a social media strategy unless you first have a message. Fianna Fáil still has none.

Candidate.

Fianna Fáil’s candidate in the by-election has come down for a lot of personal criticism, much of which I think was unfair.

While Cllr Deirdre Conroy went into the arena with her eyes open, it is still disheartening to hear suggestion that elected and appointed party officials were briefing against the candidate who did offer to run when others would not.

Electoral politics has become such a no holds barred game that you have to wonder why anyone with any experience in other walks of life would offer to get into it. I am not trying gloss over Deirdre Conroy’s less than confident media performances, but have no doubt that, as a private citizen, Deirdre Conroy has done this country some service.

Agree or disagree with her politics today, we should not forget that Deirdre took a public stance on a difficult issue when it mattered. In February 2002 she wrote a deeply personal open letter to the Irish Times recounting the severe complications she was then experiencing with her pregnancy. She went public, though understandably under a pseudonym, in the hope of changing views and changing the law, calling for terminations in the case of fatal foetal abnormalities to be legalised.

Her intervention played a major part in swinging public opinion against the 2002 referendum. She unsuccessfully took a case to the European Court of Human Rights in 2005/06 and in 2013, following the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar she waived her anonymity and again told her personal story.

The vote she received does not reflect the service she has done this country or the contribution she continues to make as a City Councillor. She has already contributed to substantively changing this country in ways that many of those who sniped at her online never will.

Responding to the result.

One of the great truisms of electoral politics is that you learn more from watching how someone handles defeat than from how they handle victory.

Micheál Martin’s studied avoidance of the by-election count centre was telling.

While An Taoiseach’s advisers may have imagined that his responding to the party’s worst ever electoral performance remotely from a Cork vaccination centre would help distance him from it, all it did was draw even more attention to the possibility that he was trying to distance himself from it.

To his great credit, Micheál Martin spent a lot of time campaigning on the ground. He was personally generous with both time and energy, indeed many colleagues remarked that very few past leaders of the party would have given so much time to going door-to-door and meeting voters.

So, why allow all that good work to be undone at the very end by not going to the count? Being a leader being as prepared to stand with your folks when the bad news is delivered as you are when the medals are being handed out.

If Micheál Martin thinks that it is sufficient as Leader to just say I’m sorry we lost, thank you Deirdre and now let’s just move on, then he simply does not grasp the enormity of the problems facing his party. As Barry Cowen says in his letter:

It cannot simply be brushed aside, ignored or not examined”.

In my view – and this will surprise no-one who has read anything I have written over the past 18 months – Martin’s time as leader must be drawn quickly to a close. Maybe not this month, or even next month… but soon.

Here ends my report.

Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010. His column appears here every Monday. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

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18 thoughts on “Derek Mooney: An Interim By-Election Review For Fianna Fáil

  1. Darren

    What does it matter who leads ff? There is no obvious benefit to it being someone else. Isn’t that surely why mm has the office. His open view of cross sectarian matters concerning the north of the country is perhaps the only distinctive image which he has managed to convey. His view is welcome broadly as a basis for future peaceful reconciliations but also resisted outside of such well meaning circles. It certainly shouldn’t be barry effin cowen..

    Reply
    1. Paulus

      Cowan would strongly disagree with you! The Cowans are one of those legacy FF families who believe in their divine right to govern.

      Reply
    2. Ronan

      It’s a good point.

      I’ve long suspected that Cowen and McGrath had the rather naive plan of waiting for Covid to blow over, and to have an uptick in support before they take Martin down. You see a lot of that, leadership putsch before an election someone is expected to win (see Bruton’s attempt on Kenny).

      Now FF are all reeling, wondering why support hasn’t returned by default, so now they need to oust him while they’re on the mat and come up fighting and hope for a bounce.

      Unfortunately this bounce will be about as bouncy as the Burton bounce, or a dead cat bounce.

      Reply
  2. Liam

    MM’s time is up, he’s had his go at being Taoiseach, he’s surely finished once that go is over next year.

    I don’t think that’s going to make much difference though – whereas FG have several candidates you could look and say they’d make a decent party leader, FF has no-one obvious.

    Reply
  3. Blob

    Fianna Fail bankrupts the whole nation and saddles generations with debt including 42% of all of Europes bank debt not just ours: Remains a Fianna Fail Member

    Fianna Fail do badly in the DBS by-election: tears up membership

    Can’t take you seriously if that’s what it took for you to turn your back a party that destroyed countless Irish lives.

    Reply
  4. Joe

    The majority of Dublin voters remember the stink and corruption of FF as they drove the economy off a cliff
    FF socialised a private and banking debt on the backs of ordinary decent tax payers who continue to be screwed over today to pay for it
    FF have been a total failure in Health/Justice/Housing, made a cack handed approach to vaccinating the population and are just FG’s little something suckers in government.

    Derek, would you not do the decent thing and campaign to have FF dissolved as they have no point in existing anymore and should just be absorbed into Fine Gael.

    Reply
  5. Tom

    Derek, FF has abandoned large chunks of its traditional voter base (basically, socially conservative voters) to chase after Labour, Green, PBP etc. voters. Social conservatives will always make up a significant percentage of voters (currently approx. 1/3 of the electorate and unlikely to drop to below 1/6 over the next 30 years) and have no major party as a home, whereas socially liberal/left/etc. voters have 5 parties to choose from.

    Reply
    1. Liam

      Aontu and Renua got about 2% of the vote at last years GE. Maybe the same again for misc independents and other tiny parties does not add up to 33% of the electorate.

      More people may be socially conservative but it’s not their guiding principal when they enter the ballot box and it’s hardly a winning strategy for FF to chase an ever decreasing/dying sector of the electorate.

      Reply
      1. Ronan

        This.

        In the absence of a socially progressive and fiscally conservative party, I don’t vote with my conscience I vote with my wallet.

        There’s always been talk of a religious vote for big parties, for example, but the failure of Renua and others demonstrates that people won’t vote on a single issue enmasse. Similarly, all this talk of a centre-left rarely amounts to a significant left vote.

        There’s a vaccuum in the state politically, and so people will vote for those that improve/protect their pocket.

        There hasn’t been a public sector pay bump of any significance for nearly 15 years now, a party that finds a way to buy this vote will do well in the very near future, if the fiscal compact etc gets relaxed for a period of planned profligacy across Europe.

        Reply
        1. curmudgeon

          WTF the public sector literally got two across the board pay rises as the private endured another round of mass layoffs. Currently the public sector enjoy on average 40% higher pay then the private sector. All while the national debt is higher than ever

          Reply
      2. Tom

        A large party espousing socially conservative positions will attract far more of the socially conservative vote than a small part doing same. 33% or so voted against the two most recent referendums. That’s hardcore social conservatism. Even if it shrinks to 10% over the next 30 years – unlikely, in my view – it’s still a big chunk of the electorate that no big party is even attempting to court. FF went hard core liberal in D4 and got its worst ever election result. Surely pause for thought?

        Reply
        1. Bitnboxy

          This is some Iona “Institute” style bull. Fianna Fáil’s fortunes will be reversed, if they only turn back the clock and go all hardline social conservative. I call nonsense. Nobody cares.

          FF is crusading to irrelevance because of one issue. HOUSING. It explains why the vast bulk of younger folk have lent Sinn Féin their support. Do you think all these young folk are committed Republicans? No – they crave sustainable rents and the ability to buy their own house or apartment for a fair price somewhere that is not a million miles from their work and friends. Sinn Féin are the only ones giving them hope (and I say this as someone on the centre who is not fan of the Shinners by any stretch). FF used to excel in housing way back when but for the last two decades they have played a major part in creating the dysfunction we now encounter, further exacerbating the problem with idiotic measures designed to drive up the cost of housing even further. FG can always count on the well-heeled vote for whom crazy property prices work (although even this is changing).

          If FF can’t get something elementary like housing right, then no one gives a flying fupp about so-called “family values”. We have been there, done that, had those debates and in most countries, look at Hungary, they are used to distract people from real problems.

          Reply
  6. The Dude

    ‘The vote she received does not reflect the service she has done this country or the contribution she continues to make as a City Councillor.’

    Fair point. Conroy is actually reasonably decent candidate – but this government is chronic, the brand is toxic, and FF do not give a damn about Dublin – except to take from it – as the past year has shown.

    The management of DC’s campaign was a total disaster. Did it really make sense to have the sitting FF TD, J O’C, as campaign manager, given that a successful outcome now would mean there would be 2 FF TDs looking to retain seats at the next GE? To my mind, this created a conflict of interest; and was a rather odd arrangement. The campaign failed to promote DC’s credible record of having brought a case to the ECHR – all the more bizarre given that Ivana Bacik was able to cash in on such values. DC did not deserve the drubbing – but FF did, and learn nothing; remarkable how it returns into a row about MM’s leadership.

    MM is inept, indecisive, and ineffective. However – as with Leo – the prospect of being replaced by anyone better that is around him does not exist. Nonetheless, it appears that a summer of discontent beckons.

    Reply
  7. Zaccone

    Martin doesn’t actually stand for anything. Hes a “windsock politician” – he just responds to opinion polls and newspaper headlines. Which might have worked when the news/political cycle was slower, but in the internet age just results in him/his government constantly shifting position and looking completely disorganized and inept as a result. Case in point the debacle with the opening of indoor dining this month, or the saga of the pointless Mandatory Hotel Quarantine.

    Fine Gael for all their faults (and they have many) at least tried to tell the public MHQ was a bad idea and fought against it for example, even though this went against public opinion. Its almost unimaginable Martin doing something similar – which is why hes regarded by so many as so spineless.

    Reply
  8. delacaravanio

    “NB when I joined, Fianna Fáil held two seats out of three in the old Dublin Rathmines West constituency, so the notion that people in Dublin 2, 4 or 6 are inherently unwilling to vote Fianna Fáil is nonsense.”

    That was long before the crash, the tribunals, NAMA, etc. Fianna Fail are now a toxic party for many.

    Reply
  9. Paulus

    Derek,
    When you mention your 40+ years of FF membership I have to ask; did you not take a good look around you and see the company you were keeping? In case you’ve forgotten, I’ll remind you of the more committed of those gangsters:
    Charlie Haughey.
    Bertie Ahern
    Ray Burke
    Liam Lawlor
    Pee Flynn
    Beverley (whatever) Flynn
    Ivor Callely
    If you recognised these buckos for what they were, then why were you happy to remain within the fold?
    If you were not aware of their behaviour; exactly how naïve were you?
    Happily, I believe that the days when politicians could rely on the short memories of voters are on the way out, especially as so many of those same voters suffered such long-term damage as a result of FF’s years in power. When you have such Chernobyl-like levels of toxicity attaching to FF, it simply doesn’t matter who their leader is – or how poor their strategy was in DBS.

    Reply

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