Reforming Fianna Fáil: Post-Election Review and Questions of Leadership

10 September 2021

Yesterday marked the first of a two-day meeting of Fianna Fáil TDs and Senators to discuss the party’s 2020 General Election performance and the forthcoming Dáil term. Taoiseach and party leader, Micheál Martin, will undoubtedly come under heavy criticism from a significant and growing faction opposed to his leadership. Despite this criticism, however, there will likely be no formal challenge to him in the immediate future. 

Instead, the focus will be on dissecting the long-awaited report on the party’s recent electoral performance, authored by Junior Finance Minister and Fianna Fáil TD, Seán Fleming. The report cites the party’s overt focus on political rivals Sinn Féin, a lack of clear identity, lack of clarity surrounding the party’s position regarding the abortion referendum, lack of connection with rural voters, its overly conservative and cautious 2020 Manifesto, insufficient electoral involvement from the party’s front bench, and its ineffective use of social media in attempting to explain the reasons behind the party’s loss of seven Dáil seats in 2020.

The report also finds that the majority of party members themselves are “unclear” about Fianna Fáil’s identity. The party’s decision to prop up the 2016-2020 Fine Gael-led government via Confidence and Supply is singled out as a primary driver of the party’s current hazy identity and consequent shortcomings in 2020.

This meeting is a key moment for Fianna Fáil as it continues to grapple with internal divisions and instability, and a lack of confidence which contrasts sharply with its record as one of the most successful parties in Europe over its near-100-year history. It is also worth considering that the socio-political landscape of contemporary Ireland is one that is vastly different to the landscape that Fianna Fáil has long dominated alongside Fine Gael, and to a lesser extent, Labour since the foundation of the State. 

Long in decline, Ireland’s “two-and-a-half party state” is no more. Fianna Fáil’s lack of clear identity will likely prove to be the most significant obstacle to the future of the party, as well as its attempts to rectify Ireland’s seemingly never-ending housing crisis. It is also worth bearing in mind that the Irish electorate now has a more diverse and distinct group of party offerings available to it than ever before. Each party with a coherent grasp of their competencies and what they stand for. Past ambiguity that served Fianna Fáil, as a “catch-all party” is unlikely to do so moving forward. The report serves to compound this fact.

Beyond criticising the party’s shortcomings, particularly with regards to its identity or lack thereof, the report also contains almost sixty recommendations that are deemed to be “practical” and capable of improving the “party’s ability to win elections”. During the meetings, Micheál Martin will present his response to the report. He will also propose a number of reforms to Fianna Fáil’s operations. A period of monumental change is afoot for Fianna Fáil; whether the party can arrest its current malaise is anybody’s guess.