Bertie's backbencher woes

Last week's Irish Times tns-MRBI poll has sent shock waves through the Fianna Fáil backbenches, with loud complaints that the party leadership is out of touch with them and the party grassroots organisation, and that the link with the PDs is doing serious damage to the party.

The poll showed, for the first time, that an alliance between Fine Gael, the Labour Party and the Greens – and perhaps with PD support(!) – could win an outright majority in the next election.

Until now, Fianna Fáil backbenchers have consoled themselves that while the public is manifestly unhappy with aspects of policy, particularly the state of the health services, there was still no viable alternative to a Fianna Fáil-led government.

These same backbenchers accept that one poll doesn't make an election, and are therefore unwilling to publicly attack their own leadership, but several TDs have told me that the party will have to get its act together fast to make sure that this opinion poll swing doesn't become a trend. One reasonably senior Cork TD, whose own seat is in danger, said: "if we don't, we're gone."

The leadership is urging calm. Their argument is that opinion polls go up and down, and that things are beginning to come together, even in health.

The trouble is that they have all heard it before, and nothing seems to get done. As one Dublin TD said, "my constituents are on at me morning, noon and night about A&E, and all Harney can do is offer to build private hospitals on public land and tell us to be patient.

"Well, I might be patient," he said, "but my constituents won't."

And it's in Dublin that Fianna Fáil are under fiercest pressure, facing the loss on these figures of seven or eight seats. And it's no consolation to these TDs that Fine Gael is unlikely to take more than two or three of these.

"The PDs area consolidating their own niche right-wing vote, but we are being left to swing," my Dublin confidant explained.

The backbenchers feel that Fianna Fáil must separate itself from the PDs shadow, try and throw the blame for current crises on their partners and go aggressively for a new alliance in the election. But the leadership argues that the party would suffer an even bigger loss of credibility if it attempted to court Labour, for example, at this time when Rabbitte's anti-Fianna Fáil strategy looks to be in the ascendant.

However, backbencher feeling is that Harney is proving a disaster in health, and that health is going to do for the party if the Opposition manage to maintain the impression that they could form a government.

Michael McDowell's promises that he will not repeat his lamp-post 'One Party Government – No Thanks' trick do not wash, as the backbenchers simply don't trust him and don't believe it will make any difference anyway. Compounding the backbench sense of drowning while the ship's captain pretends that all is fine is the growing anger at grassroots level about the way that headquarters electoral strategists are imposing their views on the local constituencies.

In Galway West, for example, where the party would have an outside chance of three seats out of five, if the tide turned anyway in their favour, headquarters are insisting that there be a three-candidate strategy, even though the local organisation believes that four candidates would give them the best chance.

In a very heavy-handed manner, headquarters has ridden roughshod over local objections and imposed its own plan, much as it tried to do in the European elections, when Dublin moved heaven and earth to try and stop Seán Ó Neachtain (who eventually won the seat) from even being a candidate.

The leadership has some time to try and turn things around the old way, but if the next opinion poll shows the same trend then backbenchers will throw caution to the wind and start fighting for their own seats, and devil take the hindmost.

For as it stands, in the worst case scenario, Fianna Fáil could lose seats in Donegal South West, Mayo, Roscommon-Leitrim-Sligo, Carlow Kilkenny, Wicklow, Kildare South, Tipperary North, all five Cork constituencies, and seven or eight of the eleven Dublin constituencies; along with possible losses in Laois-Offaly, Meath, Kerry North, Limerick West and Waterford.

It seems that just as nothing concentrates the mind so much as a good hanging, nothing makes the politicians sit up and take notice as their seats being in danger.

And the seething discontent in Fianna Fáil indicates that the party faithful don't intend to lie down and die decent.

Eoin Ó Murchú is the Eagraí Polaitíochta of RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta. He is writing here in a personal capacity