Tuesday 26 March 2019

Identity crisis for FF after abortion vote

Micheal Martin
Micheal Martin

Last Sunday, Leo Varadkar tweeted about how sad he was that a 170-year-old tree had fallen down in his alma mater Trinity College. The Taoiseach must presumably be a lot less heart- broken to see another old Irish institution looking distinctly wobbly.

After splitting down the middle over last month's abortion referendum, Fianna Fail has been left with a serious image problem - one that could wreck Micheal Martin's chances of ousting Leo at the next general election.

The figures speak for themselves. Although Martin was among the 66.4pc of voters who chose to repeal the Eighth Amendment, more than half of his parliamentary party backed the losing horse.

One of the campaign's defining images was of 31 Fianna Fail TDs and senators holding up "No" signs in Merrion Square - an open show of defiance against their leader that left Martin privately furious.

Even worse, the rebels can still claim they are more in touch with Fianna Fail's grassroots. At the party's Ard Fheis last October, delegates approved a motion to save the Eighth Amendment by a margin of three to one.

According to the referendum exit polls, meanwhile, 50.3pc of people who call themselves Fianna Fail supporters also put their tick in the "No" box.

All these statistics add up to only one conclusion: Fianna Fail has played right into its opponents' hands and confirmed the old jibe that the party is "male, stale and beyond the Pale".

In other words, Martin's troops now look dangerously older, more rural and less liberal than the country they want to govern.

It wasn't actually a crime to vote "No", and the 33.6pc who did just that should be fully respected. Fianna Fail's dilemma is that this core constituency is likely to shrink even further over time.

As the British political scientist Tim Bale has publicly warned Fianna Fail, there may well be a future for a socially conservative party in 21st century Ireland, there just isn't much of one.

For dyed-in-the-wool Fianna Failers, this is a real culture shock. They have always liked to think of their party as a great national movement with an amazing ability to put its finger on the pulse of Middle Ireland.

The party's founder Eamon de Valera famously said that whenever he wanted to know what the Irish people thought, he simply looked into his own heart and immediately knew the answer.


Today Dev is spinning in his grave and the organisation he created has a major identity crisis on its hands.

With abortion legislation due to come before Dail Eireann shortly, Fianna Fail TDs who voted "Yes" are telling their pro-life colleagues they need to get with the programme.

Some of them have already fallen into line, but others have vowed to continue the fight by putting down amendments on issues such as disability and conscientious objection for GPs.

Even when the law is passed, Fianna Fail's woes will be far from over. As the noisy and colourful scenes at Dublin Castle on May 26 showed, this issue has galvanised a whole generation of young people who want to stay involved in the political process.

Some are already looking for a party that shares their values, and as things stand, it's hard to see why they would go with the deeply divided Soldiers of Destiny.

For Martin, the only silver lining is that his own job appears safe for now.

If the referendum had been defeated, he would almost certainly have faced an immediate leadership heave.

Instead, his two most obvious rivals - deputy leader Dara Calleary and finance spokesman Michael McGrath - both went with the 'wrong' side, and as a result are much less of a threat.

Over the next few weeks, Martin will hold one-on-one meetings with all his TDs in an attempt to turn them into a fighting force again. He knows better than anyone that we are now, at most, only 12 months away from a general election.

He also knows that Fine Gael and Sinn Fein will have new and younger faces on their posters, which is partly why most opinion polls predict Martin will be the first Fianna Fail leader who fails to become Taoiseach.

If that happens, the party may need to do something really radical such as replacing him with Lisa Chambers, the 31-year-old pro-choice Mayo TD who was recently asked if she fancied being Ireland's first female Taoiseach and replied: "Absolutely - why not?"

Leo Varadkar has described the abortion referendum landslide as "a quiet revolution". Fianna Fail politicians need to turn up their hearing aids, because right now they look like the old regime in danger of getting their heads cut off.

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