By Graham Fahy and Padraic Halpin
CASTLEBAR, Ireland (Reuters) – Fianna Fail’s near century-long dominance of Irish politics came to a halt in 2011 after it suffered an unprecedented electoral collapse. Nine years later, the party is on the verge of leading the next government.
Four successive polls have put Prime Minister Leo Varadkar’s bitter rivals in the lead since he called a Feb. 8 election, as voters grow disillusioned with his Fine Gael party’s management of a rapid recovery from the economic ruins of a decade ago.
Whoever wins will lead Ireland into the next phase of Brexit talks, where any obstacles to future trade could hurt its large exporting sector. Both parties want as close a trading relationship with Britain as possible.
In 2011, after leading Ireland to the brink of bankruptcy, Fianna Fail — whose leaders negotiated independence from Britain and participated in peace talks in Northern Ireland — lost a record 58 of its 78 seats.
The difference on the doorsteps then and now could not be starker, according to one of survivors from that day, Fianna Fail Deputy Leader Dara Calleary.
“It was bleak but it was a bleak time for the country,” the 47-year-old former junior minister told Reuters.
“We just had to get the head down and build, build, build. We rebuilt the organization, got new people involved, especially during that period of 2012, 2013 and 2014. That was crucial.”
Under leader Micheal Martin, who was a senior minister during the humiliating 2010 EU/IMF bailout, the party has sought to win back trust by playing a constructive role from opposition on Brexit and budgeting.
Calleary believes Martin’s decision to shun being “against everything for the sake of being against it” is key to the recovery that saw Fianna Fail get within six seats of Fine Gael at the last election in 2016.
A co-operation deal whereby it backed the minority government from opposition was a further show of responsibility for still-sceptical voters, while allowing the party to mostly avoid blame for policy mistakes.
QUICK COME BACK
Such a deal may have to be reciprocated this time around to facilitate a Fianna Fail-led minority administration. The most recent opinion poll on Sunday gave them a three-point lead.
“I always felt that they were going to come back, just not so quickly. They have still the record of being one of the most longstanding, effective mainstream parties in Europe and you don’t lose that that easily,” said David Farrell, professor of politics at University College Dublin
“A lot of credit has to be given to Micheal Martin who has rather skillfully weathered an incredible storm. There is no doubt many commentators had written them off.”
The next 10 days will test Martin’s belief that his party’s association with the bankers and property developers who turned the Celtic Tiger boom to bust has completely faded — and whether voters trust the architects of that era’s economic excesses to fix deficiencies in housing supply and healthcare.
Political heirs to the opposing sides in Ireland’s 1920s civil war, the two main parties are both center-right and have similar policies, although Fianna Fail has pitched itself slightly centerwards by promising spending over tax cuts.
It’s a pitch the Irish Times described as “change … but not too much change” and one Farrell says will resonate with Ireland’s large swathe of middle-ground voters: “Where do you go, except back to Fianna Fail?”
In Calleary’s western constituency of County Mayo, which helped lead the revival four years ago, that line appears to be landing.
“I think the people are ready to trust Fianna Fail after the crisis,” Jim Fahy, a barman in his early 40s, said outside a local supermarket in the town of Castlebar.
“It’s not so much what they have done to deserve another go, but maybe what Fine Gael have done to deserve not being in.”
(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Catherine Evans)