Can Fianna Fáil's new generation win back the public?

New voices hope to make an impact in the coming weeks as the party leaves the crash behind...

fianna fail, fine gael, sinn fein, the labour party, jack chambers, lisa chambers, jennifer cuffe, kate keeney, enda kenny, averil power, brian lenihan, joan butron, joseph conroy, general election, ge16, ge 2016

Maebh Horan Murphy / Newstalk

“Sinn Féin - as a party that tries to claim to espouse Republican values and uniting the Irish country - would throw the economy over the cliff and would probably have us at the behest of other international economic officials who have no democratic mandate,” says Fianna Fáil candidate in Dublin West, Jack Chambers, talking about the possibility of a Sinn Fein-led government coming to power.

The 25-year old politician is tipped (according to the latest betting odds at the time of writing) to pip Labour Party leader Joan Burton to the final seat in the highly competitive Dublin West constituency where Leo Varadkar, Paul Donnelly and Ruth Coppinger are expected to take three out of four seats.

If he was to read the above statement in black and white, he would surely spot the irony. The medical student is part of a new wave of Fianna Fáilers who are living with the legacy of the party's last spell in power, while trying to rebuild the organisation.

Jennifer Cuffe, the 29 year old barrister who is running for the party in Wicklow, believes that the Fianna Fáil is ready to move on from that period:

“The biggest misconception is that Fianna Fáil ruined the country. People are saying that, obviously as an overhang from the 2011 General Election. I don’t believe that Fianna Fáil ruined the country, I believe that it was a global recession”. She adds that a new wave of talent is being nurtured by the party to offer an alternative to the current governing parties.

While these young Fianna Fáil candidates are willing to accept that the party made mistakes during Ireland’s economic crisis, they are also keen to point to the macro economic factors that pushed the country to the brink.

The party’s new hopefuls are drawn from the generation who came of age as Bertie Ahern led the country through the Tiger years, and studied and graduated as the recession hit.

Jennifer Cuffe says that she hopes to speak to younger voters because she is “in the same boat” as them, and they are feeling “very let down” by the current administration.

Ms Cuffe first became involved in politics canvassing for Lisa Chambers, who was a personal friend, during her 2011 campaign which was ultimately unsuccessful. She believes that “the tide is turning” after the party’s strong showing in the Local Elections.

Coronations

Jack Chambers is highly critical of the current government's approach to the General Election, he accuses the Coalition parties of having, “no real vision or plan” and, speaking to Newstalk, he said that they want “a coronation, rather than an election.”

“The Government parties, particularly Enda Kenny, have tried to deflect debate, he has tried to tell the Irish people in a very arrogant way that there’s no choice, there’s no option, [saying] ‘you must re-elect this Government’ - which is complete nonsense".

Fianna Fáil candidates are keen to point to the global economic issues which contributed to Ireland’s crash - Mr Chambers also counters the Government’s “keeping the recovery going” narrative by pointing to factors such as low oil prices, favourable currency fluctuations, and the ECB’s sustained period of low interest rates, which have helped Ireland's recovery.

Over the last 20 years, there has been a steady but sustained movement away from Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and The Labour Party. Two decades ago these parties were supported by more than 80% of Irish voters, at times that number has dropped to closer to 50%.

Mr Chambers believes that Irish voters will not elect a Sinn Féin government - he describes the party as "the Trojan Horse" of Irish politics.

“I think it would be enormously dangerous, and I don’t think the Irish people will ever elect Sinn Féin” he said, adding the he thinks, “Sinn Féin have no role in Government for many years to come,” and that he hopes “the Irish people see through Sinn Féin at this election and in many future elections”.

The new generation of Fianna Fáilers are keen to attack Sinn Féin’s political credentials - echoing the frequent attacks made by party leader, Micheál Martin.

Power plays

The positivity espoused by the party's young members who are excited about the new “energy” that has been injected into the party runs at odds with the comments made by Senator Averil Power when she left the party last year.

As she parted ways, citing unease at Fianna Fáil's approach to the Marragie Equality referendum, she described it as lacking “vision, courage and leadership,” and called Michael Martin “a leader without any followers.”

Mr Chambers, Ms Cuffe and the other party members who spoke to Newstalk expressed their disappointment at her decision.

Dublin South Central County Councillor Daithi De Roiste told Newstalk that he recognises that the party is involved in a process of change which will not always be easy. He had hoped to run in the 2016 general election, but was blocked to allow councillor Catherine Ardagh to run unopposed in Dublin South Central in order to field enough female candidates to meet the newly introduced 30% quota.

“Michael Martin is not a messiah” he said responding to a question regarding Ms Power’s split with the party. He adds that Fianna Fáil is rebuilding “with a new generation of people” - pointing to the fact that most of the key personalities associated with the party during the boom years are now gone.

"It leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, to be honest. Entering politics has always been about representing the people of Dublin South Central to the best of my ability.

"I believe in democracy and allowing people to vote for the candidate they want, not just because of their gender. So obviously I'm disappointed," Mr de Roiste said at the time.

Speaking to Newstalk days after the 31st Dáil was dissolved, the Ballyfermot representative says that he understands the decision - and that he is committed to his current work as a councillor, and that he recognises that it takes time to build enough support to become a TD:

“It doesn't happen overnight. To get elected to Dáil Éireann, it’s a steady stream of building up a good body of work that people can recognise.

"You don't just get to 7,000 votes overnight - that doesn't happen. Anyone who thinks that something like that can happen in the course of one election cycle, they don't know much about politics."

Kate Feeney, the Dún Laoghaire Councillor who has embroiled in the high-profile “Battle of Blackrock” with former Fianna Fáil minister Mary Hanafin, admits that she is also personally disappointed to have missed out a nomination for this election at convention - but she told Newstalk that she also feels that the reaction on the doorstep to the party has shifted and that she is excited to see how its younger candidates perform in three weeks time.

 

Image: Kate Feeney as she was elected as local councelor for Blackrock at the count centre in Citywest. Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews.ie

She believes that the wave of young people who joined the party in the wake the financial crisis are now shaping Fianna Fáil policies.

"For us [new FF voices] we're the generation that came who always saw the fairness and equality that was coming down through Fianna Fáil legislation, we would have benefitted heavily from Fianna Fáil education policies - what I always see as underlying Fianna Fáil policy is the real sense of equality and fairness."

She adds that in 2016 that despite the fact that the party currently has no Dublin or female TDs, it is moving away from the image of being "male, stale and beyond the Pale".  

Matters at hand...

While Jack Chambers describes the Dublin West constituency as one which has always been “highly volatile” - he feels that his message is resonating with voters:

“People are gravitating back towards Fianna Fáil, they feel disillusioned with this government - they see little vision - little change - and a massive amount of broken promises.”

He adds that he feels the race is much more complicated than a run off between himself and Joan Burton.

While it would (perhaps) be more surprising if Jennifer Cuffe managed to secure a seat in Wicklow, she says that she will be focusing on “proposing” rather than “opposing” ideas in the coming weeks - as Fianna Fáil moves from defense to offense in the 2016 race.

Live from @ElectionNT