By the times the polling stations closed at 10.20 last Thursday night, Bertie Ahern was exhausted. This had been his toughest campaign as Fianna Fail leader, physically and psychologically. The first one in 1997 had been hard but he was a younger man and also the challenger. The second in 2002 was hard too but his government was so strong, the opposition so divided that the outcome was predetermined weeks, maybe months beforehand.
This one was different. He always knew he would be going into this one as top weight, handicapped by two terms of office, economic uncertainty, and all the brouhaha surrounding his personal finances and his house.
Election campaigns are always intense but this one was bruising, nasty, divisive and personal – for the first two weeks, the questions surrounding his house were unrelenting and pitiless.
Ahern and those closest to him knew that they turned it, that the critical last ten days of the election campaign had belonged to them. But the effort to pull that off had taken his toll.
Sometime after the last vote was cast Ahern went to bed and fell into a deep sleep. He slept through the RTE exit poll at 7.00 the following morning. He slept through the tallies from the 43 constituencies. He slept through the first counts early in the afternoon, all of which told the same story.
And when he finally woke, sometime after 4pm on Friday afternoon, it was to a radically changed country. The first call he got was from his daughter, Cecilia, at around 5pm. She told him: it’s ok, everything is going well. For him, it must have been a transforming moment.
It’s a fair question to ask: what has radically changed or what has been usurped if everything remains the same, if the status quo is as it was.
But the drama of this election wasn’t that Fianna Fail held on, but the dramatic and emphatic nature of the party’s victory. They defied everything. The odds. The trust of the media punditry, which called it as going right to the wire. The expectations (over-cooked as it turned out) of all the other parties. This was a bigger victory than 1997. It was also a much bigger victory than 2002.
Sure, the numbers didn’t stack up as high this time. Fianna Fail came back with 78 seats rather than 80 but its percentage of support was actually higher. And now, not only was it facing a real alternative in the shape of the Fine Gael and Labour alliance, it also had to face down Sinn Fein – most of its gains in the marginal constituencies of Dublin and Donegal would be made at the expense of FF.
There was a mood out there all right, but it wasn’t – as the opposition parties believed – a mood for change. People were worried. About house prices. About health services. About transport. About public services. About quality of life. About the economic uncertainty that lies ahead. But the mood when it translated into votes plumped for trusting the incumbents more than the pretenders – or as Pat Rabbitte put it, a refusal to switch horse in mid-stream.
This was a fascinating election and one that will take many months to analyse. There were many factors that fed into the victory, some complementary, some harder to explain.
There has been a lot of talk this weekend about the air war and the ground war. The air war was the national campaign fought on the airwaves and in the media – the one in which Bertie Ahern took an awful lot of flak in the first fortnight; the one also that was turned around in the last ten days.
But Fianna Fail won the ground war, and won it hands-down. The party always seems to be ahead of the posse in terms of tactics and strategy. In the late 1990s it began maximising its chances of getting a seat bounce by ruthlessly minimising its number of candidates. This time round, it picked young, hard-working, presentable candidates, paying particular attention to the commuter-belt constituencies that satellite Dublin.
These were the constituencies where FF had taken massive hits in the local elections and in the Kildare North and Meath by-elections in 2005. The problems of these new suburban towns were manifold – marathon commuting times, no school facilities, no public transport, hassle getting childcare; class sizes, no real sense of community. The list went on. During the campaign, we heard of a family holding a birthday party for a child at 6.30am.
And how did these new communities vote? Overwhelmingly for Fianna Fail.
They picked up two in the three-seaters of Meath East (thwarting the high-profile Labour candidate Dominic Hannigan); Kildare South; Meath West; two in Kildare North, Longford Westmeath, and Wicklow; and three out of five in Carlow-Kilkenny.
And they held Dublin. Save for North Central (which was down a seat anyway) and North East.
But the ground war meant more than just candidate-selection. It was the incessant nature of the campaigning – two years of slog and constant canvassing. In the last couple of days of the campaign, Fianna Fail succeeded in dropping close to 1 million leaflets through letterboxes. That was awesome.
The air war had to be won too and it was in the last ten days of the campaign, FF managed to turn it around in its direction. Once Ahern issued his statement that Sunday, Fianna Fail finally managed to put BertieGate behind it. From there on in, it made sure it would not emerge again.
Brian Cowen (who was the real star of the show for FF) came out with an inveterate attack on Enda Kenny’s ‘contract’ the next day. Ahern was in Westminster the following day. By the time Ahern lined up against Kenny for the TV debate, the wind had changed. But as a senior FF strategist said yesterday, the debate became the ‘tipping point’, the moment in which it all swung back towards FF.
Kenny didn’t do badly in the debate and for many, the fact that he survived relatively unscathed was enough. But what Ahern succeeded in was raising real doubts about the alternative’s policies and figures. In a series of claims during the debate, he queried the costing of hospital beds, claimed the FG tax would favour the rich, said that a FG promise of 2,000 extra cops was only 1,000 extra cops. Kenny never departed from his script, was never prepared to go cross country to take Ahern on. And it cost him – because he left those allegations unanswered.
The FF big guns lined up on Friday and Saturday and pounded away with the same rhetorical artillery all weekend. This was an exercise in consolidating the advantage (privately, FF were furious that the media had not called Ahern a more clear-cut winner).
By the time FG (which has far fewer political heavyweights on its front benches than FF and Labour) got its act together – and it required considerable assistance from Pat Rabbitte – it was all over. FF had a lousy last Tuesday of the campaign – but by that stage it was too late.
Another feature that is staggering about this election is that Fianna Fail and Fine Gael do not seem to take each other on directly. Their seats are almost mutually exclusive. In 2002, when Fine Gael almost disappeared, they lost only five of their seats to FF. This time, they displaced Fianna Fail in Cork South Central and Cork South West, Dublin North East and in Roscommon/South Leitrim. The strange thing is FG gained more from Labour (and benefited hugely from its transfers) than FF. And it almost single-handedly wiped out PDs – taking all of its six losses.
Likewise, the real success of Fianna Fail this time round was in staving off the threat posed by Sinn Fein. If SF had succeeded in grabbing seats off FF in Donegal and in the three constituencies north of the Liffey, it might have been down to 74 or 75 seats and the whole dynamic of the election would be changed. And to be sure, while FG recorded a gain in Dublin South West, it was also a victory for FF which maintained its two by targeting the potential support of SF’s Sean Crowe (a strategy employed by Joan Burton with Joe Higgins in Dublin West).
For good measure, it also stole a couple of seats from independents, notably in Cavan-Monaghan, in Kildare North and in Tipperary South.
This became an election that was resolved by almost primal voter considerations. The environment didn’t really feature. Quality of life didn’t really feature. Nor did childcare. And was it a referendum on health? It became a contest of what Michael D Higgins describes as ‘managerialism’.
To me it seems people asked themselves the simple question about who should govern and gave surprisingly cautious, innately conservative answers to those questons. Better the divvil you know. Or the ‘cold feet syndrome’, to employ the words used by another potential David McWilliamesque corny phrase-maker.
Who should govern? When you are a smaller party you are not really in a position to provide an answer to that question.
A very senior FFer told me yesterday that this time round, voters voted for the politics of possibility rather than the politics of protest.
And distilled down, possibility could really express itself in only two configurations. Voters in 2007 asked the same essential question that voters have asked themselves since 1927 – Fianna Fail or Fine Gael?
And the answer to that question emerged in the hours of Bertie Ahern’s deep sleep. He woke to find a changed country, to find that he, the man in the anorak, would lead Fianna Fail into government for a third term.
He didn’t win an overall majority. But psychologically, it was a landslide.
A version of this appeared in this morning's Irish Examiner