Terry Prone: FF revealed to be a shapeless monolith as persistence wins the day

12th Jul 2021
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Originally published in The Irish Examiner

Do you remember Incy Wincy Spider from the children’s rhyme? Incy Wincy was climbing up the drainpipe when “down came the rain and washed the spider out”. Then out came the sun and dried up all the rain, and Incy Wincy Spider started up the drainpipe again.

The Dublin Bay South by-election winner has much in common with Incy Wincy. Being a failed contender for the Dáil in one election after another was like being sluiced out of the drainpipe repeatedly. But as soon as another opportunity presented itself, Ivana Bacik took it. And this time she made it to the top — literally.

Even before the end of the count, once it was clear she’d topped the poll, she was surrounded, encircled with delight. People wanted to touch her, clap her on the back and call her by her first name as if they’d known her forever. Even people from other parties were glad for her — if you’re going to be defeated, being beaten by Ivana just might be your best option.

While the Labour Party glad-handing was going on in the count centre, the Fianna Fáil candidate stood alone, watching her hopes die in front of her.

The Matthew effect

In her person, she demonstrated just how the Matthew effect can work on a political party.

Even though the Matthew effect, when it started in the 1960s, was seen as applying to academic research, it’s now recognised as a general human phenomenon. The Matthew effect — first elucidated by sociologist Harriet Zuckerman, and promulgated by her husband, Robert Merton — was based on the biblical pronouncement: “For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”

‘A master of measured loyalty’

The Matthew effect on Fianna Fáil is significant. It was verifiable on the doorsteps during the by-election. Whereas Ivana scratched the itch of voters who loathe the Government but also hate Sinn Féin, the Fianna Fáil candidate could find no itch to scratch.

To the Labour Party, in this instance, was given top of the poll, and from Fianna Fáil was taken away what they had, leaving them with the worst result in a century. While the candidate stood, abandoned, the director of elections talked to media, not absorbing much blame for the situation. Nor was the director of elections killing himself diverting blame from his leader. But then, Jim O’Callaghan is the master of measured loyalty.

Barry Cowen might challenge him some day for that position. No man is faster out of the traps to suggest leader-demolition. As if replacing Micheál Martin with — well, Barry Cowen — would do anything to reverse the brand bankruptcy of Fianna Fáil.

FF leader who half-understood new media

Brands go broke the way F Scott Fitzgerald said humans do: Slowly at first, then very quickly. The slow bit started with television. Charles Haughey understood half of the TV issue: That his troops needed to be trained away from being incoherent, arrogant, caricatures. The half he missed was the degree to which TV would provide choices in the fight against boredom.

Back in the day, going out at night to a cumann meeting was the highlight of many voters’ week. On top of providing camaraderie and gossip, it made the members feel part of something bigger than themselves — a movement that managed at one and the same time to make them feel nobler while creating a commercial network within which they could make money or get jobs.

TV not only disrupted the week in which the cumann meeting figured, but disrupted many of the certainties of old Ireland — and with that twin disruption started the slow decline of the Fianna Fáil vote.

Coalition erodes big parties’ identity

When Haughey led the party into coalition with the Progressive Democrats, it might have been the beginning of the end for the smaller party, which invariably suffers at the ballot boxes for its period in office — but it was also erosive for the bigger party’s brand.

Coalition mutes the direction of the bigger partner on most issues, and not infrequently squelches that bigger party’s favourite projects — witness the PD destruction of the “Bertie Bowl”. Voters may not, indeed do not, give the smaller party credit, but they see the bigger party as less distinct in its mission and branding. So, when Fine Gael coalesced with Labour, the bigger party got less credit for action on what used to be called “the social agenda” than they hoped for.

Coalition is a wonderful paradox; it feeds you power and enfeebles your future. It gives you ministerial seats while the bell tolls for you and your party.

By breaching the visceral FF objection to it, Charles Haughey ensured FF could repeatedly return to power despite not winning elections outright or even — as happened after his time — coming close to an outright win. One of the men who served in Haughey’s first FF/PD coalition could nonetheless see the damage being done to the party brand and, a week before Haughey was brought down, provided Vincent Browne’s Sunday Tribune with an analysis. Looked at 19 years later, it seems prophetic.

“The voter should be able to say, at any given time, what a particular political party stands for, what its priorities are, where it’s leading towards — and we’ve failed to make the voter clear on any of those things in relation to FF for some time,” Padraig Flynn wrote.

“We need a series of initiatives to make Ireland the environmental oasis of Europe, where air, water, and soil are so demonstrably pristine that all food products coming from this country would have an instantly obvious advantage throughout Europe.

“We are rapidly moving away from the politician-as-messenger years. Where we should be going is towards a model of the politician as a regional thinker on concepts affecting his or her own area, as a listener to individual and group concerns, as a driver of legislation which respects our traditions and values while making a progressive social impact.

“Public representatives ought to be able to refer to their profession with pride, and to see themselves as both local ombudsmen (helping people cope with unresponsive administrative systems) and as policy catalysts. If we don’t make these changes, then we will still have a place, but it will be a sadly restricted place in Irish public life.”

Flynn’s Cassandra warning has been borne out.

It’s silly wishful backbench thinking to ascribe that “sadly restricted place” to the current leader. Fianna Fáil’s republicanism has been watered down to an extent that die-hards on that front go to Sinn Féin. Social liberalism has won, depriving the party’s conservative wing of a purpose. Old voters who remember the good times are dying out.

And the sunny, dogged perseverance characterising Ivana Bacik is thin on the ground in Fianna Fáil.