Speech by Senator Averil Power to the
31st Annual MacGill Summer School
Monday, 25th July 2011
Has The Political Landscape in Ireland Changed Forever?
“Forget about history, traditions, places in history, famous old faces, and political records. Forget about traditional constituencies, old faithful lobbies, and old allegiances. In the world of 21st-century politics, the voters out there could not care less.”
You would be forgiven for thinking that this was an analysis of election 2011, but, as Frank well knows, these are words he used to describe the impact that the breakdown of traditional loyalties had on Fine Gael in 2002.
Indeed, there is no doubt that the Irish political landscape has been changing for some time. The combined share for the two ‘Civil War’ parties has been declining constantly – from 90 percent in 1937, to 80 percent in 1973, to 73 percent in 1992 to 53 percent last February.
Voters have become more volatile and, perhaps, more discerning. Parties have become less able to assume a certain level of support simply on the basis of what side one’s father or grandfather fought on in a conflict nearly a century ago. Fianna Fáil’s electoral success at the 1997, 2002 and 2007 elections masked some of this weakening of traditional loyalties we picked up new voters and attracted transfers from outside the party at a rate that we had never previously achieved.
Of course, this cuts both ways, as Fianna Fáil discovered in this election. When the party found itself unpopular and on the wrong side of public opinion on virtually every issue, we could no longer rely on a substantial core vote. Indeed, every time a new opinion poll came out showing our vote down further there were many in the party that thought ‘Well, at least it can’t go any lower’. But, of course, it did go lower and lower and lower.
So, in some respects, election 2011 was utterly remarkable.
It was certainly a ‘record breaking’ election:
- Fianna Fáil’s record low vote meant it was the first election since 1927 where we did not win at least one seat in every constituency.
- Fine Gael won a record number of seats, although it failed to exceed its all time high vote of 39 percent won under the late Garret Fitzgerald in 1982.
- Labour also entered into the record books by becoming the leading party in Dublin for the first time.
Following this record-breaking election, Fine Gael and Labour have an unprecedented majority in the Dáil.
It is also interesting to note that for the first time, a majority of TDs elected were not members of the previous Dáil. Despite this, I still didn’t manage to make it there!
However, in other respects, one could ask what really changed? Despite all the turbulence, 73 percent of the population still voted for the three parties which have dominated Irish politics for decades; Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour.
In addition, despite many predictions of a new political force emerging that would shake up the system, no new party challenged popular support.
One of the dominant themes of the election was public anger. In the RTÉ exit poll, 36 percent of voters cited the feeling of being angry or let down as being the primary factor that influenced their vote. It was patently clear from both the exit poll and the reaction on the doors that people wanted to punish Fianna Fáil.
Therefore, it would be wrong for anybody in Fianna Fáil to think that our vote collapsed simply because of a breakdown in traditional loyalties. Nor should we assume that just because the voters went for similar, centrist parties in this election that they would be automatically inclined to turn or to return to Fianna Fáil when this government becomes unpopular.
For the first time in our history, Fianna Fáil cannot take its continued existence or relevance for granted.
It’s particularly worrying for the future relevance of the party that the RTE exit poll showed that only one in ten voters under the age of 25 voted for us. While we got 17 percent of the male vote, only 13 percent of women voted for us. And we got less than 8 percent support in Dublin – putting us in fifth place behind Labour, Fine Gael, Independents and Sinn Féin.
Our greatest level of support was among older male farmers from Connaught and our lowest support was among young people, women and those from Dublin. As I am neither male, elderly, a farmer or from Connaught, this was hardly encouraging!
However, there are causes for optimism also. Two in particular stand out for me:
Firstly, Adrian Kavanagh of NUI Maynooth has done an excellent constituency level analysis of the election. This showed that a mere two percent swing at the next election could see Fianna Fáil regaining seats in most Dublin constituencies and in the rest of Leinster.
Secondly, Micheál Martin. I know it will come as no surprise to you to hear a politician praise their leader but I genuinely believe that Micheál is one of the greatest assets Fianna Fáil has right now. I also think that he has both the vision and dedication for the long, hard road back to electoral success.
The public like him – the exit poll showed he was judged to have performed best by far of all party leaders in the debates. That didn’t help us in February because the decision to punish Fianna Fáil had become too ingrained for many to overcome. However, it does bode well for the future.
Furthermore, Micheál has taken to the task of rebuilding party organisation with incredible gusto. He has held constituency meetings all over the country, a process Frank will be very familiar with from his experience with Fine Gael post 2002. He is also determined to modernise our party structures, welcome new members, embrace new ideas and run new candidates.
Indeed the fact that we have so few incumbents means that the next general election provides Fianna Fáil with a unique opportunity to rejuvenate not only our party but also politics generally. Micheál has already announced that we will be running one candidate under 30 in every local election ward in 2014. It is also our aim to not only meet but exceed the proposed legislative requirements on female candidates.
Of course, it is not enough to just have good candidates, they must be backed up with good policies. I will talk in a moment about what I think the party’s policy priorities should be. But firstly, I want to acknowledge that our overriding challenge is to earn people’s trust once again.
Part of that is responsible opposition – demonstrating that we truly will put the interests of the country ahead of the interests of the party, including by supporting the government when they are doing the right thing.
While breaches of ethical standards occurred in almost all parties, we must recognise that Fianna Fáil, more than any other party, has been associated with the worst of those breaches.
An absolute commitment to upholding – and being seen to uphold – the highest ethical standards must be non negotiable for all parties on this island. For Fianna Fáil this is doubly so.
In the new Fianna Fáil, our moral compass must never again be thrown off by the magnet of loyalty.
In the new Fianna Fáil, there must be no place for anybody who thinks it’s acceptable to claim expenses from the taxpayer from their holiday home.
And in the new Fianna Fáil, there must be no place for anybody who thinks its acceptable to carry around suitcases full of cash, give loans to friends from party funds or refuse to answer reasonable questions about their rather unorthodox financial arrangements.
Turning to policy, I genuinely believe that there is space in Irish politics for a reforming centrist party, a party that is not blinded by an inflexible and abstract ideology but that is underpinned by real values and a zeal for challenging the status quo.
Fianna Fáil is, first and foremost, a Republican party. This does not just mean that it is our aim that Ireland, north and south, be united. It also means that we are committed to the Republican principles of liberty, equality and fraternity. For me that means parity of esteem and of opportunity for every Irish person, be they male or female, gay or straight, black or white, rich or poor.
I grew up on a council estate and was the first person in my family to finish school. Education opened many doors for me. But I was lucky. By the time I was in my late teens, I could see that opportunities which were opening up for me were already closed off for many of the people I had grown up with. I decided to get involved in politics as a student in Trinity because I wanted to campaign for everyone to have a fair start in life, regardless of where they live or how much money their parents make.
I’m not from a political family so I had no natural ties to any particular party. I chose to join Fianna Fáil because it argued for the kind of politics that most appealed to me. Fianna Fáil people didn’t just talk about tackling poverty, they were involved on the ground in the poorest areas working with communities to improve people’s lives. They were the party of the ordinary working class Dub.
And while other parties thrived on pitting different sections of Irish society against each other, Fianna Fáil had long moved beyond an outdated and restrictive mode of class politics. Their policies were influenced as much by the aspirations of those who wished to better themselves as they were by the fears of those who were struggling to survive.
While others sought to make disadvantaged communities angry about their lot in life, Fianna Fáil was determined to give them the tools to improve it. Their emphasis on education as a vehicle of social opportunity spoke particularly to my own life experience.
And while other parties seemed to be either pro-business or pro-labour, Fianna Fáil realised that you could – and should – be both. The party had realised earlier than most that the best way to help ordinary working people to get jobs was to create a pro-enterprise environment. We see success as something to be proud of, not to feel guilty about.
I joined Fianna Fáil because I saw it in my community as being the party of the ‘aspira€tional classes’. Prioritising work over welfare and promoting education as a vehicle of social opportunity – while I appreciate these may not be the same values people now associate with the party that cut the minimum wage, it is my aim to help bring Fianna Fáil back to that tradition.
Returning to Glenties in ten years time, what questions would we ask ourselves to evaluate the claim that in 2011 the political landscape in Ireland changed forever?
Evaluating future levels of party support will be one way to measure change. But for me, the extent to which real change has occurred will depend on the answers to the following three questions.
Firstly, I would ask whether the political culture had changed so more people were voting on policy over personality. Election 2011 delivered mixed messages in this regard. According to the exit poll, the percentage of people who voted on the basis of a choice between the policies as set out by the parties increased dramatically from 24 percent in 2007 to 41 percent in 2011. However, the proportion whose main concern was to elect someone to look after the needs of the constituency was almost unchanged at 37 percent in 2011.
Secondly, is there greater gender balance in the Oireachtas and in local government, with our elected representatives being drawn from a wider range of backgrounds.
Finally, I would ask if individual legislators have a greater role in the Oireachtas and a real ability to hold the government to account. Fianna Fáil’s proposals on reform of the Oireachtas received the highest mark of all parties in the ReformCard.ie independent, academic analysis of the party manifestos in the last election. We will be encouraging the government to take up these proposals and will be putting pressure on them to do so.
To conclude, I think it is too early to say if Election 2011 heralded a permanent change in the Irish political landscape.
There is still much uncertainty and much opportunity. However, I think one thing is clear: in the future no party will be able to assume a certain level of support simply because of a party label. Every party will have to fight for every vote. That is a fundamental change compared to how politics has operated for most of the lifetime of this State. I think that’s very healthy for democracy and very challenging for political parties. That’s the way it should be.
 ‘The Flannery Report’ as quoted on p. 139 of The Road to Power: How Fine Gael Made History by Kevin Rafter, New Island Books.Tags: