Dáil election has brought new life to Irish politics

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin, casts his vote during the 2016 General Election with wife Mary at St Anthony's Boys Primary School in Ballinlough, Cork. Picture by Chris Radburn, Press Association
Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin, casts his vote during the 2016 General Election with wife Mary at St Anthony's Boys Primary School in Ballinlough, Cork. Picture by Chris Radburn, Press Association

THEY never went away you know. Well that will be the new mantra for a reinvigorated Fianna Fáil as they emerge from the Irish election.

Micheál Martin, one of the few nice guys in Irish politics has made a comeback worthy of Lazarus.

Martin said that when he took over Fianna Fáil that he would learn lessons from the past and listen to the Irish electorate and that he did, touring the country, speaking wherever he could assemble an audience and assiduously building up his party’s grassroots with an array of new look Fianna Fáil candidates.

Martin had no intention of letting Sinn Féin do to Fianna Fáil what it did to the SDLP.

At the time of writing its Micheál Martin and not the Taoiseach Enda Kenny who has choices, as both parties stand neck and neck with Fine Gael having the slenderest of leads. Sinn Féin’s long promised coming – never came.

Yes they increased their Dáil representation substantially but they never came close to Fianna Fáil. In fact their core first preference vote support remains unchanged since the 2011 Presidential election when Martin McGuinness took 13.7 per cent of the vote. Today it stands at 13.8 per cent well below their target.

The unusual silence of Sinn Féin internet trolls yesterday and the various calls for recounts are proof that behind the bearded smiles that the party apparatchiks are severely disappointed. It can’t be long before Adams gets the electorate’s national message and takes a permanent bath with his ducks.

Just as in the UK something strange has gone on in Irish political punditry as they consistently underestimated the strength of Fianna Fáil despite the organization becoming the largest party in the state two years ago in the local government elections. Seasoned commentators should not be surprised by the Fianna Fáil comeback, like it or loathe it, it’s a party rooted in the DNA of the country.

The chattering classes, liberal cappuccino-suppers and hipster left-wing urbanites won’t like it but the Soldiers of Destiny are back in play.

For the Labour leader, Joan Burton, it's curtains. Her dour style and lackluster media performances nearly sealed her own electoral fate along with that of her party.

A leadership contest is inevitable, even if there are few Labour TDs to choose from. Fine Gael devoured Labour in government and whilst the latter always needed Labour support to govern, Labour always seemed a better fit with Fianna Fáil when in office.

In fact Labour were playing in a crowded field, with the anti-austerity party, social democrats and Sinn Féin all competing to its far left. They were completely outmaneuvered by Micheál Martin’s understanding that the gravity of mainstream Irish opinion had moved centre left.

Fianna Fáil then did what it has always done in the past - shifted ground. Fianna Fáil’s election theme ‘An Ireland for all’ had more resonance with the Irish electorate than Fine Gael’s call to ‘Keep the recovery going!’- A recovery that not everyone was feeling positive about!

And therein sowed the yet another catastrophe for Fine Gael- failing to understand the Irish electorate. The Taoiseach, Enda Kenny is a political liability and despite five years of leading the Government, it turns out that the country shares the reservations of the Fine Gael TDs who led a heave against him a few years ago.

Though he has a hide of a rhinoceros to opposition voices, Kenny may have to be sacrificed like his Blue-shirt predecessor, Richard Mulcahy if a deal on a new coalition is to be reached.

Elsewhere, the Irish are amongst Europe’s most fickle electorates. They love electing their eccentrics like the flat-capped Healy-Raes, the pompous Shane Ross, the double-barrelled trendy Trotsky and serial protester, Richard Boyd Barrett and the more than slightly controversial Michael Lowry.

So what next. Now that the people have spoken with a muffled voice? Certainly Fine Gael and Labour have run out of steam. Pressure will mount on Micheál Martin to join a national government - but that’s unlikely without revolving the post of Taoiseach.

Though Martin saw off the Sinn Féin challenge comfortably, he will be slow to give them prominence as the official opposition. He may be better blooding his young TDs on the opposition benches and that in the long term may be better for Irish democracy.

The price of a constructive opposition led by Fianna Fáil would have to be on the basis of serious legislative concessions by the minority administration but those too would ultimately strengthen a diminished Dáil. Who says politics isn’t interesting?