“There needs to be a conversation”.
As anyone whose boss has popped their head around the door and said this to them will tell you, this is never a happy statement to have delivered to your face. But, for the Taoiseach to hear it from one of his previously loyal supportive TDs, it must have sounded like a tolling bell.
It was prompted by a poll showing Fianna Fáil’s support hitting 11%. For comparison, in December 2010, as the economy imploded and Brian Cowan’s government sparked public rage at every bumbling stumble, the party still polled at 17%- considered a crisis at the time.
But, if only the party could recognise it, the week suggested there was a path for Fianna Fáil back from irrelevance.
Fianna Fáil’s problem has not been its leader- Micheál Martin is a tetchy technocrat with the charisma of weetabix, but he has managed to save his party from the consequences of its own errors more often than not and still has a personal approval rating a multiple of his party support.
Their problem, as their TDs have fuzzily recognised in recent months, is that their party has no identity in the modern world- Fianna Fáil has always stood for putting Fianna Fáil back into power and delivering patronage. This offer works great when you’ve got 40-50% of the votes but is sort of non-functional when your voters need binoculars to catch sight of the next nearest supporter.
No Fianna Fáil grandee or would-be leader has advanced a compelling explanation of what the party is meant to be for now. The closest we’ve heard is that it is The Centre Party- the party for people who don’t like their porridge too hot in Sinn Féin or too cold in Fine Gael.
The appeal of the Tepid Porridge Party has not yet triggered the frenzy of public excitement its proposers seem to have expected.
But, almost by accident, standing on her feet in the Dáil, Junior Minister in the Department of Health Anne Rabbitte hit on a potentially attractive new role. Fianna Fáil as the party that will fight for voters with the faceless machines of the state.
This is alien to Fianna Fáil’s culture, which was grown in a world where they were the faceless machines of the state. But it makes sense now.
The Junior Minister had been left to answer questions in the Dáil over the revelation in the RTE Investigates programme that had revealed her department had been amassing dossiers on autistic children. That same day, the Data Protection Commission had used its powers to designate Authorised Officers to enter the Department as part of its investigation- a dramatic escalation of risk for the state body.
She read the speech that she’d been told to, which left almost everything important unanswered. So far, standard issue fare.
But then she broke out. It turns out that the Minister had questions of her own Department’s behaviour that she was still waiting on asking. And she read them out- putting her questions to herself.
She then ended with a confirmation that she had looked for a briefing with her own officials before coming into the house but it hadn’t happened.
“I asked if other concerns about this file management had been raised over the years. I am awaiting a response to that. I also asked if there are other similar file or case management protocols in place elsewhere in the Department. That was my last question up to the meeting with the Secretary General last Friday.
“Before I came into the House today, I was expecting a briefing, but proceedings ran ahead. Some of the script that I read out is from the Department but a lot of the information I presented this afternoon is my own.”
Later in the week, the FF Minister for Health, went to war with Simon Coveney- the personification of FG establishment in the Cabinet- over extending the mandatory hotel quarantine to the US and new EU countries. Coveney was backed by the Ministries headed by FG in blocking the extension of travel restrictions to these Important Countries. The FG arguments won the day at the first Cabinet meeting. But when the public heard them, they were unconvinced. This tends to happen when you can’t decide which argument you want to advance so just make them all, regardless of whether they make a blind bit of sense.
By the end of the week, the list was extended, with the USA and four EU countries added.
In both Minister Rabbitte’s statement and the Hotel Quarantine row Fianna Fáil managed to do something it hasn’t even noticed it needed up until now- it staked out a position more in line with the public mood and then it tried to advance that position against internal and institutional resistance.
Fine Gael voices the views of state officials, because it has always seen itself as the rightful heirs of the state. The Green Party are consistently bamboozled and helpless in the face of their own Departments.
Even as it hits new polling lows, Fianna Fáil may have stumbled on a strange route back from irrelevance- to become the internal opposition in the Government it nominally leads.