Fianna Fáil has dominated Irish politics since 1932 when it first came to power under its powerful founder Eamon De Valera.
The party Dev built is more of a national movement, one with roots so deeply set that the Fianna Fáil faithful always know what's being said when it's not being said. They have an instinctive understanding of which statements and announcements are real and which ones are merely for the benefit of the media or some foreign leader. They are not being lied to, they hear things differently.
This infuriates a lot of the people in the media. The Irish Times is incapable of hearing Fianna Fáil properly. Many at RTE are the same. They are continually caught out when they believe they have caught Fianna Fáil out because Fianna Fáil's voters seem never to believe 'black is black' no matter how often the media says it's so. Indeed the more shrill some commentators get yelling 'black must be black' the more the voters seem to enjoy saying 'not here it ain't.'
That's Fianna Fáil – part political party and part badge of tribal identity. At least that's how it used to be, but it's possible that the party has severed that connection with a big chunk of their tribe. The economic collapse is the ostensible cause of this disconnect, but the tribe's complaint with the party goes further back.
I recently described the Irish economy as an airplane coming down fast, like in the movies. Only instead of James Bond taking control we had Maxwell Smart, who constantly assured us that “there's nothing to worry about,” even though we could hear a few economists yelling 'mayday mayday' on our behalf.
Even Fianna Fáil voters know that the two Fianna Fáil Taoisigh – Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen – were dead wrong when they berated those commentators who were warning us about the economic dangers ahead, claiming that these people were “talking us into a recession.” Instead, we now have something much closer to a depression and we weren't talked into it. We were led into it.
But it isn't just the economic deafness that is bothering the Fianna Fáil supporters.
First there was the drip drip drip of the corruption tribunals and their revelations of brown paper bags full of cash, slush funds and other sordid details about too many of the party's elected representatives' murky dealings. And recently we have had the full airing of the party leaders' cozy relationship with the reckless bankers, property developers and others, who amassed tremendous fortunes and, simultaneously, put the nation on course for bankruptcy.
The credit crunch was the catalyst for Fianna Fáil's fall, but the combination of corruption and stupidity is proving too much for many in the party's base and there are elections coming up fast.
Three weeks from today Fianna Fáil will have to face the voters in nation-wide votes to choose Ireland's representatives in the European Parliament and to decide on the make-up of local town/city and county councils throughout the country. On the same day two by-elections (special elections) to fill two vacant parliamentary seats will be held in Dublin.
Fianna Fáil can expect to be soundly beaten in all contests. The latest poll puts dissatisfaction with the government at 86%, a reflection of the current angry mood in the country due to the collapse in the economy. That 86% includes a large number of Fianna Fáil people.
Fianna Fáil's main rival, Fine Gael, is now where they have never been before: 17% ahead of Fianna Fáil in the polls. A week ago Fine Gael surprised everyone – even themselves I suspect – when they announced that the popular and well-respected George Lee was leaving his position with RTE to run for Fine Gael in the Dublin South by-election.
Lee was one of the most prominent people issuing warnings about the economy for a long stretch before it all went spectacularly wrong. Lee quit his job as Economics Editor for RTE, where his dire warnings transformed him from the dull reporter he was to the nation's favorite doom merchant. When the economy collapsed Lee's stock went stratospheric.
Barring a complete shock Lee should romp home with a Dáil seat and Fine Gael should thrash Fianna Fáil in the local and European elections. There's no doubt but that Fianna Fáil will get a drubbing on June 5. No doubt.
Okay, maybe a little doubt.
Fianna Fáil's local candidates are employing two basic messages in this campaign: (1) 'the economy is a victim of the global credit crunch' and, more usefully (2) “We're only the local guys; we're not to blame.”
Their election posters have downplayed the Fianna Fáil brand, the name is only barely visible as you drive by. Their posters are distinctly local too. Unlike Fine Gael's over touched-up candidates' faces over a bland, generic background, Fianna Fáil has put the candidates' faces in front of identifiably local scenes. The posters shout, “We're you.” Fine Gael's posters seem to make their candidates look almost like aliens.
The situation in European campaign is similar. Again the Fianna Fáil name is only there if you really want to find it. The candidate is the brand, not the party. The color scheme for their European candidates' posters is almost Fine-Gael like, especially the deep blue background. Fine Gael – strangely – has opted for posters that look Fianna Fáil-ish with their liberal use of green. Does the color scheme of election posters matter? I don't know, but I'm sure there are people who would say it does and if it does Fianna Fáil has the right look.
I think the clever posters and positioning will be worth a few votes come June 5, but really everything points to a Fine Gael rout. The people are angry. Fianna Fáil people are angry. They may not be able to make themselves vote against their fellow tribesmen (& women), but they probably will just stay home come June 5. If they do come out and they do vote against Fianna Fáil, it could be the sign of a seismic change in Irish politics. One that clever posters can do nothing about.