It’s stating the obvious somewhat to say it, but whichever party has the most seats will take the lead in forming a new government when the Dáil is due to return on February 20 – and Fianna Fáil is confident that Micheál Martin will be the one making the phone calls to other parties rather than Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald or Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar.
“We are going to be the biggest party,” one veteran Fianna Fáil TD said this weekend. He may be right, but Election 2020 has been about much more than who comes out in front.
The surge in support for Sinn Féin, the potential for large-scale seat losses in Fine Gael, and the emergence of a millennial generation of floating voters who do not have the same party loyalties as their parents have all been fascinating developments.
If the picture painted by recent polls is officially confirmed by the returning officers in the 39 constituencies later today, it will be confirmation that the outcome of this election has been just as dramatic as the collapse of Fianna Fáil in 2011 and the decimation of Labour in 2016.
Fine Gael’s nightmare
At the start of the campaign, Fine Gael knew that voters were not happy with its performance in government on key issues such as housing and health.
It essentially wanted an updated version of Fianna Fáil’s classic 2002 general election slogan “A lot done, more to do”. So when Varadkar launched the party‘s election campaign in Cavan, he said: “We’ve been able to make good progress, but I know it’s not enough.”
Some progress made, more to do, in other words.
As the campaign went on and Fine Gael’s posters promised “A future to look forward to”, the public looked at the party’s past performance. Unfortunately for Fine Gael, they focused on the “not enough” bit rather than the “good progress” bit.
Fine Gael TDs found midway through the campaign that the party’s message on Brexit and the economy was only really registering with a core group of party supporters “and a very small extra few” .
“The message is not resonating beyond that,” said one Dublin Fine Gael TD in the last week of the campaign. “The number of people that will tell you the economy is booming, but then they will turn around and say: ‘I’m not sure who to vote for’ . . . it’s very disheartening.”
Varadkar repeatedly tried to distance himself from Fine Gael’s nine-year record in office with copious use of the phrase “since I became Taoiseach”, or mentioning that Fine Gael had only taken over the housing portfolio in 2016. This didn‘t seem a terribly effective tactic, given that he was a minister for all of those nine years.
“Even though we changed the captain, it’s still a Fine Gael government,” admitted one Fine Gael TD.
The 'et tu, Brute‘ moment
Following the 2016 election, in which Fine Gael’s seat tally fell from 66 to 50, there had been criticism of the close control and influence of Enda Kenny’s advisers, to the detriment of the party overall. An internal report compiled afterwards by former GMIT president Marian Coy recommended that the party had to do its election planning in a “more inclusive manner” and “take into account the failures in vision, empathy, planning, tactical positioning, communication, campaigning and responsiveness identified in the 2016 campaign”.
This time round, say Fine Gael sources, Varadkar’s key advisers – chief of staff Brian Murphy, John Carroll and Angela Flanagan – were much more open. And the lines of communication between Fine Gael’s operation in Leinster House and the party headquarters in Mount Street were improved.
Yet the party still found itself floundering on numerous occasions during the campaign. Party advisers were shocked at how strong the public mood for “change” actually was. They began to realised that this could be another case of a revolution taking place during a time of rising expectations that had gone unnoticed to them.
One Fine Gael adviser ruefully quoted the ancient historian Livy, who wrote his History of Rome some time between 27BC and 9BC: “For a people may endure an almost incredible series of the darkest failures without breaking; but give them respite and some hope for the future, and they may not endure an unexpected denial of that hope."
If there was an “et tu, Brute?” moment for Fine Gael in this election, it came from former finance minister Michael Noonan, who endorsed his successor Paschal Donohoe as a future Taoiseach in an Irish Independent podcast. It shocked not only Fine Gael but also politicians in other parties. Noonan did lose his job when Varadkar took over from Kenny but opening up speculation about the next Fine Gael leader was exactly the kind of message that Varadkar did not need in the closing stages of the campaign. Varadkar batted it off gamely, but it was reminiscent of the custard pie in the face that Noonan himself received in Boyle, Co Roscommon while campaigning during the 2002 election.
The Noone own goal
Varadkar expressed the fear several times during the campaign that he might come across as “too blunt” due to his habit of being a “straight talker”. But, bar his long pause in responding to a question from Pat Kenny about whether he had used drugs, he was competent in the debates and better than expected on the campaign trail.
However, he had to cope with another Fine Gael own goal when the party’s Dublin Bay North candidate, Senator Catherine Noone, described him as “autistic . . . on the spectrum” in a catastrophic attempt to explain his personality. Her comments, reported by the Times, infuriated Fine Gael supporters as much as anyone else. Tánaiste Simon Coveney got the brunt of it outside the SuperValu store in Grange in his Cork South Central constituency from party supporter Peggy O’Donovan.
“This is not all right, you are letting her away with it, I'm so disappointed. I'm gutted,” she said.
Coveney replied: “All I would say to you is don’t hold a stupid comment that one person made against them, because they’re working very hard,” he said.
Fine Gael TDs grumbled that they were the victims of the economic recovery they had helped to foster. By stopping emigration, they had increased the population, which created more demands for housing and childcare. Back in 2016, the country‘s busiest road, the M50, had 135,000 vehicles per day at its busiest section between the M3 and M4. Now that is up to 160,000 per day, causing gridlock that infuriates drivers.
While Fine Gael could rely to some degree on support from dairy farmers in Munster, beef farmers were a different story. Mostly concentrated north of a line between Dublin and Galway, they felt very alienated by the party’s response to the meat pricing controversy. “The farmers are pissed off and are going to kick us around,” a Fine Gael source said.
Fine Gael knew it was under pressure from public sector workers, which was why it made the highly unusual commitment to ringfence €2 billion for the next pay deal in its election manifesto. But this was not enough to prevent thousands of secondary school teachers from striking in the final week of the campaign and a huge protest by state-funded childcare workers outside Leinster House.
The strong performance of the economy – with a record workforce of 2.3 million people, an unemployment rate of below 5 per cent and a budget back in surplus– was not delivering the gains Fine Gael had hoped for.
“We haven’t been able to make people feel it. That goes to the heart of what has gone wrong,” said one Fine Gael adviser.
John Halligan, the Independent Alliance Minister of State who is retiring from politics, privately told Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and its director of elections Paschal Donohoe that Fine Gael needed to connect more with people who were earning good wages but under huge pressure due to the cost of living, a lack of housing supply and high rents. “The economy is a personal economy for people. All the people complaining are people who are working,” he said.
Halligan spent most of the campaign staying at the home of his endangered Independent Alliance colleague Shane Ross, so that he could canvass for him in Dublin-Rathdown. But he made no secret of his desire for Fine Gael to get another term in office due to his good relationships with people like Coveney.
“If Fine Gael lose, we are losing a really good foreign minister,” he said.
Fine Gael TDs were reporting back to party headquarters that they were getting a polite reception on the doorsteps, and that the level of anger was much less than in 2016. But veterans in Leinster House recalled how former Progressive Democrats leader Mary Harney had reacted when she got similar reports about voter reaction in the run-up to the 2007 general election.
“You are reading that as nice – if they are indifferent, I’d be worried,” she told her TDs. The Progressive Democrats lost six of their eight seats on that occasion.
Fianna Fáil’s home run
Back in late 2017, the academic Tim Bale wrote an article in the Irish Times which was eerily close to Fianna Fáil’s election strategy for the 2020 campaign.
“If the Irish are anything like the British, then Fianna Fáil is right to shout as loudly as it can about the need to move beyond austerity, the shortage of affordable housing, and (most importantly, surveys show) the crisis in healthcare,” he said.
Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University in London, has been a frequent guest at Fianna Fáil ard fheiseanna in recent years, but has not been named by Fianna Fáil as an official adviser. He is coy about it himself. “Couldn't possibly comment,” he told this newspaper.
Housing has always been an issue in Irish elections. Micheál Martin himself noted in his book on Cork politics, Freedom to Choose, how it had been highlighted by Richard Beamish, the owner of the Beamish & Crawford brewery, when he was running in the local elections in Cork 100 years ago.
“The adequate housing of the labourer is all-important if real efficiency in production is to be expected, as the best efforts of men cannot be secured when they are herded together in unsanitary surroundings and inadequately paid,” Beamish wrote. Sure enough, during the campaign, Martin hammered home his pledge to increase home ownership with an SSIA-type scheme and more affordable housing.
Fianna Fáil’s campaign was controlled by its longtime backroom team: Martin’s chief of staff Deirdre Gillane, head of communications and deputy secretary general Pat McPartland, and the party’s long-serving general secretary Sean Dorgan. They are all utterly loyal to their leader. TV viewers got to see for themselves last week when Dorgan instantly proclaimed on RTÉ’s Spin Room that Martin had won the final leadership debate. As he told people afterwards, what else was he going to say?
The party also drafted in Peter McDonagh, nicknamed the Child of Prague because he is based in the Czech capital. He has worked on every Fianna Fáil’s general election campaign since 2002.
The campaign was centred on Martin himself, but the party was at pains to ensure it was not seen as “pale, male and stale”. Martin’s regular media conferences in the party HQ in South Cumberland Street strongly featured its female candidates such as Catherine Ardagh, Deirdre Heney and Lisa Chambers. It became a running joke for Fianna Fáil TDs to know the identity of the latest “lady” to be standing beside Martin.
‘The bust generation’
For the last nine years, Fianna Fáil under Martin has been on a mission to rebuild trust that was shattered by its handling of the economy during the years of boom, bust and bailout.
Bertie Ahern was pressurised into resigning from the party under the threat of expulsion. The “rainy day fund” concept was developed. And the party supported Fine Gael through gritted teeth for four years under confidence and supply. It put 84 candidates into the field versus 42 for Sinn Féin, giving it an obvious advantage in picking up more seats from dissatisfied Fine Gael voters.
One of the thing Election 2020 has shown is that there is still a significant group of voters who have not forgiven Fianna Fáil. While canvassing to win a seat in Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Féin MEP Matt Carthy kept coming across parents in their 30s and 40s.
“They are the generation of the bust. Now they are busting themselves and working really hard. They don’t have the price of going out for a meal on a Saturday night,” he said.
This group of voters did not want to vote for Fianna Fáil because they had bitter memories of the crash, and they did not want to vote for Fine Gael because they felt the party had not done enough to help them.
Sinn Féin’s surge was putting Fianna Fáil under pressure. Martin started to complain about people relying on opinion polls. Then there was an outburst by Dublin West TD Jack Chambers during a panel debate on RTÉ’s Claire Byrne Live last week, when he was asked why his party’s election manifesto commitments to tackle child abuse images were in the same section as its climate action policies.
Chambers pointed out correctly to Byrne that this was because all these issues are the responsibility of the same Department: that of Communications, Climate Change and Environment. However, his tone grew increasingly aggressive as he gesticulated towards Byrne and criticised both her and RTÉ.
“If Jack had been sitting further away from Byrne, it wouldn’t have looked so bad, but the fact that he was sitting right beside her probably wasn’t great,” a Fianna Fáil source admitted. It became one of the most watched election clips on social media last week.
Sinn Féin’s surge led to an outbreak of “coalitionology” with Martin facing repeated questions on whether Fianna Fáil would enter coalition with Sinn Féin. But his emphatic denials helped to take some of the heat out of the issue.
“There’s no going back for Micheál. How can he? He has made it absolutely clear he ain’t going with Sinn Féin,” one rural Fianna Fáil TD said.
The Sinn Féin surge
It’s easy to forget how Mary Lou McDonald had entered this general election with serious question marks over her leadership, following the party’s disastrous local and European elections last May in which it lost 79 of its 159 council seats and two of its three MEP seats.
Party insiders say morale was low following the drubbing, particularly due to the loss of a number of councillors who had been seen as big hopes for the future.
The first green shoots of recovery came in the form of a by-election victory for Mark Ward in Dublin Mid-West last November. Then the controversy about the Royal Irish Constabulary commemoration energised people who wouldn’t normally pay much attention to current affairs.
“My son, who has never had any interest in politics, hopped into the car after school one day and put on Come Out Ye Black and Tans,” one Sinn Féin activist said. “That whole thing really got people’s backs up.”
At the start of the campaign, Sinn Féin captured the public imagination early in the campaign with its pledge to put the state pension age back to 65. No matter that the issue had first been highlighted by the Labour Party: it was soon debated on at least four occasions on RTÉ’s Liveline. Caller after caller emphasised they didn’t give a damn for the warnings of economists that the retirement age had to increase to keep up with demographics.
The party’s finance spokesman, Pearse Doherty, said that while the fact that the retirement age was due to rise to 67 next year had been covered by some in the media, it came as a shock to the public.
“I think the public weren't aware up until then as to what was actually coming down the road,” he told the Business Post.
Sinn Féin had found out after its losses in the local and European elections that a lot of its supporters were not clear on the work it was doing and what it stood for.
“People weren’t clear about our housing policy, they thought we were just about building council houses. They weren’t sure if we cared about affordable homes for first-time buyers or about what were we doing for renters. There was just a lot of ambiguity,” a source said.
The party sharpened up its messaging to make it “a lot more understandable”. Its two key housing pledges were a three-year rent freeze and cutting rents by €1,500 a year courtesy of a refundable tax credit.
Labour, under leader Brendan Howlin, had very similar promises of a three-year rent freeze and 100,000 new affordable and social homes. Howlin warned that just because a party had not been in government was not a reason to vote for them. But frustration over spiralling rents was drawing young people more towards Sinn Féin rather than Labour.
SF’s poll breakthrough
The big moment for Sinn Féin came when the second Business Post/Red C poll put the party in joint first position for the first time with Fianna Fáil on 24 per cent, ahead of Fine Gael on 21 per cent.
Sinn Féin’s vociferous followers on social media went into overdrive. McDonald and her election team enjoyed flicking through the pages of the Business Post with the poll details. The party’s housing spokesman Eoin Ó Broin insisted that the paper be put on the top of the pile on the table in Wynn's Hotel in Dublin, as Niall Carson of the Press Association snapped the photograph.
“It’s the first time I can remember our vote going up in the polls throughout the campaign. Generally, we start quite well and tail off, but this is different because of the young support we’ve got,” the Sinn Féin source said.
Fine Gael had been carrying out regular polling of its own throughout the election. It knew that Sinn Féin was pulling ahead, which is why the Business Post/Red C poll results in the final week of the campaign did not come as a surprise. However, the drop in Fine Gael’s poll ratings meant that many of its TDs faced the prospect of losing their seats.
Donohoe had to field many phone calls from worried candidates. His big project as Minister for Finance had been to ensure that the political centre would hold. But he noted good-humouredly that perhaps his arms had not been broad enough.
Veteran Fianna Fáil TDs, who know a thing or two about going through an electoral meltdown, were amazed at how calm Donohoe was. “You would think that Fine Gael were on 40 per cent in the polls,” said one of them.
Shadows of the past
The poll had another immediate effect. Within 24 hours, RTÉ had announced that McDonald would be allowed to take part in the RTÉ Prime Time leaders debate with Varadkar and Martin, having been excluded from the first one. However, McDonald was caught out on the leaders’ debate about the party’s deeply insensitive response to the murder of Paul Quinn. She got Sinn Féin’s finance minister in the North, Conor Murphy, to apologise for his 2007 remarks suggesting wrongly that Quinn was involved in criminality.
Despite the unwelcome reminders of the IRA’s bloody past, Sinn Féin believed its new supporters weren’t scared off by these issues being aired. “It is being raised on the doors, but in a negative way towards Fianna Fail and Fine Gael,” a party source said.
During the campaign, McDonald’s big message for party supporters was to get to fill out their ballots on polling day.
“We represent the best people in the world, but they're not great about coming out,” she told one woman in the Greek Street flats complex near the Four Courts in her Dublin Central constituency.
Based on its successful “get out the vote” operation in the Dublin Mid West by-election, Sinn Féin conducted a similar operation across the country yesterday. It involved teams of party canvassers going to “green” estates containing lots of Sinn Féin supporters.
Sinn Féin’s canvassing teams had lists of people who said they would need a lift to the polling station, so volunteers provided transport. And there was a big-push in Cavan-Monaghan to get their supporters to vote in the morning, before they left for Monaghan’s National Football League match with Dublin at Croke Park last night.
The big mantra for all parties was that climate action should not be a case of “them versus us”. But as an issue, it was something that was significant in Dublin and other urban centres, although not as much elsewhere.
“We all want to save the planet, but people want to save their own family situation first,” said a Fianna Fáil TD in a predominantly rural constituency.
Still, for the party most associated with tackling climate change, the Greens, there are likely to be gains nationwide. Its deputy leader Catherine Martin said she had got ten to 15 volunteers on campaign teams in Donegal, a county where the party’s organisation was practically nonexistent.
“Before that, you’d be lucky to get two or three people. I’ve never seen support like this for the Green Party,” she said.
One of the accusations thrown at Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil during the campaign was that there was very little difference between their policies, which both parties naturally denied. But historian Diarmaid Ferriter recently recalled on Eamon Dunphy’s podcast The Stand how former Fianna Fáil taoiseach Seán Lemass had once explained the difference between the two parties to a US journalist. “We’re in and they’re out,” he said.
Varadkar currently has a picture of Lemass in his office in Government Buildings, partly because of his admiration of him and partly in tribute to Fianna Fáil’s role in the now concluded four-year confidence and supply deal. Martin is another fan of Lemass. But if he gets in, will he replace that picture with one of Jack Lynch, a Cork-born Taoiseach and a longstanding friend of his father Paddy Martin?
At times during the election campaign, Martin was cranky and argumentative during some of the endless broadcast interviews. He put a lot of emphasis on reminding people that “I didn‘t interrupt you”, but he relaxed noticeably as the campaign reached the finishing stages.
One of his campaign visits was to St Colmcille’s Community School in Knocklyon in Dublin, where he was encouraged to shoot for the basket in the PE hall. He missed with his first attempt, as he had in the 2011 election. He tried again and missed, just like in the 2016 general election. His third shot, however, went straight into the basket and made it into RTÉ News’s report that evening.