This column appeared on Broadsheet at the end of January 2019. The full original version can be viewed here. This is a shortened version which looks only at Fianna Fáil’s upcoming Dublin European Selection Convention.
Within Dublin the race for the Fianna Fáil party nomination will be critical. On the surface it looks like a four-way competition but, to be brutally frank, the choice is binary.
In Column A you have Tiernan Brady, who many of you may know as an equality campaigner from his leadership in the Irish and Australian marriage equality campaigns.
And if you think Tiernan is not the kind of candidate you would expect Fianna Fáil candidate to field, well think again – because Tiernan is as dyed in the wool Fianna Fáil as any candidate the party has produced over the past decade.
I first met Tiernan back in 1992 when he was one of the Kevin Barry UCD Cumann members who came in to help Ben Briscoe TD on the (in)famous 10 day “long count” to decide the last seat in Dublin South Central – an event referred to by Ben at the time as “The Agony and the Ex TD”.
I have now updated my initial thoughts, musings, observations and mild rantings on the implications of the local election results, particularly Fianna Fáil’s stronger than expected showing.
This was first posted on Sunday morning – updated on Monday morning to reflect the revised party national totals in the Local Elections.
“If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience.” – George Bernard Shaw.
Quite a lot, it seems.
Yesterday we saw history repeating itself, with the electorate visiting upon Fine Gael and Labour almost exactly the same devastating blow it had served up to Fianna Fáil and Labour five years earlier.
In 2009 Fianna Fáil lost around 39% of its support (when compared with 2007) while the Greens endured a massive reduction in its vote of 76%.
Yesterday, based on the Local Election results to hand, Fine Gael lost 34% of its support and Labour lost 63%.
While the story of the Local Elections is the rise in support for Sinn Féin and the Independents and the scale of the loss for Labour, the Fine Gael haemorrhaging of support should not be ignored.
Indeed, the case can be made that the real story of the election is this massive Fine Gael loss – a loss that should not be glossed over by what might appear to be its reasonable performance in the European Elections.
Losing 100 plus Councillors, on a day when you have increased the number of available council seats, is a political meltdown of Fianna Fáil in 2009 proportions. It will send a shiver around the Fine Gael backbenches that will match that currently coursing along the spines of their Labour colleagues.
Leo Varadkar’s line that the next election will be a battle between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin was a clever attempt to calm the troops with the notion that their lost support will come back when the Irish voters realise that Fine Gael is all that stands between them and the Shinners.
It’s clever line, but a flawed one.
For it to offer any comfort it would need to be underpinned by Fine Gael still remaining the largest party – but it hasn’t. By the time the dust settles it will become clear that the other big story of the locals is the return to frontline politics of Fianna Fáil, even if its European results are a bit rocky.
If the battle of the next election is, as Varadkar suggests, to be fought on the question of where you stand with regard to Sinn Féin then Fianna Fáil, with a few more weapons in its armoury, is standing on better – and now even firmer – ground than the depleted followers of Enda.
While Fine Gael may see itself as the antithesis of Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil can challenge SF’s voodoo economics every bit as credibly as FG, but with the added bonus that that can better undermine and dismantle the Shinner’s fallacious claim to Republicanism, especially in its back yard.
The other story of the Fianna Fáil result is its incredible variety. Its national level of support at just over 25% belies some very good and incredibly bad local results, especially in urban centres.
They range from the sublime such as its 49% in Bailieborough-Coothall 39% in Castlecomer and 38.4% in Ballymote-Tobercurry to the ridiculous: such as its 4.9% in Dublin North Inner City, 6.8% in Tallaght South and 8.7% in Lucan.
While there are several other disappointing low teen results in urban centres across the country e.g 9.6% in Waterford City South, 10.5% in Bray and 13% in Limerick City North, it is no coincidence that the single digit performances are in Dublin.
That is not to say that the Capital is a wasteland for Fianna Fail. Contrast the single performance mentioned above with the parties stunning 27.3% in Castleknock, its 24.2% in Clontarf and its 22.3% in Stillorgan.
While the overall Dublin result of 16% points to a major problem for the party, the variety in results, highlighted above, shows Fianna Fáil’s further potential for growth and renewal in large swathes of Dublin.
It is the very patchiness of its result that points up where the party needs to work harder and better. Far too many candidates in Dublin were left to struggle on by themselves with no structured national campaign to underpin their efforts.
Having “Fianna Fáil” on your poster does not guarantee a good new candidate a certain base level of support in Dublin and other urban centres in the same way as having “Sinn Féin” on your poster did for their new first time candidates. Indeed it does not offer the prospect of that base level of support as it does in non-urban Ireland.
The candidates in Dublin raised the Fianna Fáil vote to their level, not the other way around. The vote in Dublin and other urban centres, is not the party vote plus the candidate’s unique personal support – it is just the latter. In certain parts of the city is it the unique personal support minus the residual antagonism to Fianna Fáil.
The “Fianna Fáil” identity is Dublin is not a coherent identity based on a core defining message from the party as a national political party: it is the collective identities of its various candidates.
This is not to underestimate the particular nature of Dublin voters, especially their looser party allegiances; it is just to point out that Dublin voters are just as likely to be receptive to a national message, just less continuously loyal to it.
Despite some clearly very good results in Dublin, most Fianna Fáil supporters still struggle to answer the questions: why should I vote Fianna Fáil and what does Fianna Fáil stand for. Most of the successful candidates I have encountered in Dublin answer it with the words: here is what I stand for…
It is not that there are not answers to these questions, but rather that the party has not sufficiently defined and substantiated them.
It is work that can and must be done. That work is not aided or encouraged by intemperate outbursts or Quixotic threatened heaves. The issues are policy and organisation – not personality.
The 24.3% of voters who abandoned Fine Gael and Labour saw their political alternatives this week. Some said independents, some said Sinn Féin – though not by a large margin as the swing to Sinn Féin since the 2011 election is in the 5.3%, but even more said Fianna Fáil with a swing of just over 8%, but the point should not be lost that the biggest single section of them said: none of the above.
The ones who stayed at home are the ones who were badly let down by Fianna Fáil and are now just as angry with Fine Gael and Labour for promising them a new politics and then delivering the old failed politics as usual.
Perhaps they concluded that they could afford to sit out these second order elections, as they do not see how the results will change their lives, they will not be as sanguine at the next election.
My column from today’s Herald on the current discussions to have directly elected mayors for Dublin in the future.
Should Dublin have its own version of Boris Johnson?
That is the question a Forum of 22 Dublin councillors will consider between now and September. But there is good news: Dubliners will get a say on it in May.
While the forum, drawn from the four Dublin Councils, started its deliberations at the end of July, the idea of Dublin having a directly elected Mayor goes back much further.
According to the Lord Mayor of Dublin website it goes back to Chapter 11 of Minister Phil Hogan’s June 2012 local government reform: Putting People First. It actually goes back to Noel Dempsey’s 2001 Local Government Act.
In case my Boris Johnson reference hasn’t given it away, I am not a fan of the idea. I wasn’t a fan of it in 2000, nor when John Gormley resurrected it in 2008.
Like most Dubliners, I want to see decisions made about Dublin being made by people who are answerable to Dubliners, but I am not persuaded that directly electing a mayor is the way.
My biggest worry is that an office supposedly created to give leadership to Dublin would descend into de-facto focus of attention for opposition to the government of the day.
A directly elected Mayor of Dublin would, after the President, have the biggest electoral mandate in the State, but without the constitutional prohibitions on politicking.
Boris Johnson’s mayoralty has become a focus for those unhappy with David Cameron’s leadership. Given the scale here: a mayor of the greater Dublin area would potentially be elected by up to a third of the total electorate, imagine how much more pronounced those clashes would be, particularly when the Taoiseach and Mayor were from opposing parties?
The potential for political gridlock is huge, especially where the Mayor has no real powers or responsibilities, just what Teddy Roosevelt called “a bully pulpit”. Instead of leadership we would just be getting a personality with a shiny office and access to a microphone.
The use of the London Mayor template only adds to this concern. Chapter 11 of Putting People First, which the Forum is using as its starting point, makes no fewer that six references to London.
It does not mention the directly elected mayors in Berlin, Budapest or Paris, or the strong systems of city governance in Helsinki, or Copenhagen.
This Ministerial and Departmental infatuation with London is hard to understand. I can only imagine that it is because they have never seen the legislation establishing the London Mayoralty and Authority: The Greater London Authority Act 1999.
At almost 500 pages it is the longest piece of legislation passed at Westminster since the Government of India Act. More importantly it does something almost unheard of in Irish public administration: it takes power away from central government.
Not that it took enough powers. Earlier this year Johnson was again calling for London to have the power to raise property and new tourism taxes. In May last year 8 out of the 10 UK cities asked if they wanted a directly elected Mayor said: no.
Do we really see the Phil Hogan’s Department of Environment ceding power and controls to anyone?
This is the Minister who, in the same Putting People First document, has slashed the number of local authorities from 114 to 31 and the total number of City, County and Town councillors from 1,627 to 949.
Do we really think he is ready to chop off a large section of his Budget and power to keep us happy?
With most decisions regarding Dublin’s present and future being made by unaccountable and disconnected State bodies and departments, the case for giving more power to Dublin is clear.
What is almost just as clear is that instead of being given viable city government with a budget and authority the most that will really be on offer is a city personality with a big desk, a press officer and an electric car.