Biffo Cowen’s announcement this evening that he won’t be contesting the forthcoming southern election is interesting in a couple of respects. The first is that this brings to thirty-seven (37) the number of outgoing deputies who won’t be running again, including both taoisigh from the last Oireachtas term. In a Dáil that, taking vacancies into account, only has a membership of 163, that must be unprecedented, and bespeaks something of the raw fear in the Fianna Fáil ranks, for that is the party that’s providing the majority of the retirements, and not all of deputies of pensionable age either.
The aspect, though, that will detain us a moment is that of Mickey Martin’s newly minted leadership of the Soldiers of Fortune. Well, it makes a sort of sense, for a party of desperate men. Of the other contenders, Brian Lenihan was too compromised, Mary Hanafin not much less so, and the spectacle of Éamon Ó Cuív, the living embodiment of Old Fianna Fáil, trying to position himself as the socialist candidate for the FF leadership is the sort of thing that makes you wish Myles was still with us. Martin, being a relatively plausible TV performer and having finally grown a pair and challenged Biffo, ends up leader by default. And if he arrests the FF decline he may yet succeed in turning a total meltdown into a mere catastrophe. After all, he could hardly do worse than Cowen – for that to happen, they’d have had to elect Willie O’Dea leader.
Right so, the last little spate of retirements looks suspiciously like Mickey strong-arming some colleagues into stepping down so as to have a more rational slate of candidates – it may look defeatist for FF to be running a mere two candidates in five-seat Cavan-Monaghan, for instance, but running three or four as in the past would have verged on the foolhardy. On the same sort of theme, Éamon Gilmore must be ruing his strategy of imposing running mates on sitting Labour TDs – it may have made sense with Labour over 30% in the polls, but with a slide back down to the lower 20s there are going to be a whole lot of constituencies where two Labour candidates are chasing one seat, with possible consequences we can all foresee under STV.
One suspects, though, that Biffo’s withdrawal in Laois-Offaly is more to do with the national than the local picture. Back in 2007, he pulled in a whopping 56.4% of first preferences for FF in the constituency and therewith three seats out of five. Given that sort of cushion, Laois-Offaly is just about the only constituency in the state where it’s possible to imagine FF taking a second seat. On the other hand, Biffo is such an albatross nationally that shunting him out of the way might – just might – win Martin a precious point or two in the polls.
There are, though, a couple of other retirements over the last day or two that are indicative of FF’s constituency problems. One is the termination of Noel O’Flynn in Cork North Central, leaving FF with only one candidate (Billy Kelleher TD) in a constituency where it currently holds two of the four seats. Yet, while it may mean a loss of face for FF, it’s the only sane option when there’s a maximum of one seat available to the party. In 2007 FF took two seats with 1.79 quotas – if it’s at or below the one quota mark this time, which is entirely likely, and has become profoundly transfer toxic as well, running two candidates would come close to assuring no seats at all. Fine Gael would certainly hope to bring in a second here, and though Labour running two candidates looks optimistic with the present polls, Sinn Féin’s Jonathan O’Brien is a dark horse worth a punt. The one predictable thing is that it’ll be an almighty scrap for transfers at the end, so yes, the only way to go is to dump the surplus candidate, even if he’s an actual sitting deputy.
Things get yet more intriguing though way up in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Donegal North East), where Niall Blaney TD has just announced his retirement at the grand old age of, er, 37. This is not just a matter of the opinion polls, but also ties into a long-running saga of banjo-twanging Donegal vendettas.
We could, if we liked, go back to the 1970 Arms Crisis and Uncle Neil’s subsequent departure from FF ranks. We could even, if so minded, go further back. But it’s better to start off from the historic merger young Niall brokered with Bertie Ahern (remember him?) in 2006 to reunify the Blaney clan’s Provisional Fianna Fáil with the main party. Like many of Bertie’s bright ideas, this has come back to bite FF in the arse. Even initially, the merger was not universally popular in Donegal North East. It wasn’t popular with a sizeable chunk of the republican-minded Blaney organisation and electorate, which decamped en masse to Sinn Féin. It wasn’t even popular with the Blaney family, some of whom were moved to openly denounce Niall for his deviation from Orthodox Blaneyism.
The merger also proved to be not universally popular with the pre-existing FF organisation in Donegal North East and in particular with Dr Jimmy McDaid TD, who almost immediately launched himself into a fight to the death with the Blaneyite blow-ins. After much rural factionalising, the Blaneyites came out on top and Niall firmly established himself as the local party baron. Which would have been a nice ending had it not been for the continued presence in the Dáil of an increasingly pissed-off Jimmy McDaid who, though always a mercurial character, now went into overdrive with losing the FF whip, threatening independent candidacies and eventually, back in November, resigning his Dáil seat altogether, at just about the most unhelpful time imaginable for the government.
And so it is that, in a quintessentially loyal Fianna Fáil constituency where the party polled 50.3% of the vote in 2007 – and indeed, where prior to that election it had three seats out of three – Micheál Martin can look at a Donegal North East where there should be certain seats for FG’s Joe McHugh and SF’s Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, with FF scrabbling for the third. And while one finds it almost impossible to imagine Donegal North East without any FF TDs, all bets are off this year. Again, a one-candidate strategy beckons. Moreover, Blaney’s USP – the rural republican appeal of the Blaney name – has largely been gazumped by the Shinners, while the party baron still has to deal with a legacy of bad blood from McDaid supporters in Letterkenny. So, not only imperative to have one candidate, but imperative that that candidate should not be Niall Blaney. Step forward, Inishowen councillor Charlie McConalogue, whilst the hapless Blaney, who was campaigning most vigorously in Letterkenny just last week, suddenly finds his political career at an end.
They do play rough in Donegal, you know. Even if Micheál Martin didn’t want a night of the long knives, they wouldn’t need much encouragement. And, with FF in every-man-for-himself mode, there will be more and more of this in constituencies across the state.