The highs and lows of Election 2016
The election wasn't dull, insists Eilis O'Hanlon, as she looks back at the winners and whingers
Published 28/02/2016 | 02:30
A general election is always about the What Ifs. Undeniably, the biggest one of this campaign is: What if the election had been called in November?
There were plenty of observers advising the Taoiseach to do so following October's Budget. Instead, Enda Kenny hesitated, reportedly at the behest of the Labour Party.
It became common wisdom during this campaign to slam the giveaway Budget as a tactical mistake, but it didn't look that way last autumn.
Before Budget Day in October, Fine Gael was hovering around 27pc in the polls. By the end of that month, Fine Gael was rising again, a trend that continued through November and December, until the party was once more nudging 30pc. Labour didn't get the same fillip, but the Budget did check its fall. Compare that with previous years' Budgets which hit people harder. Those saw Fine Gael's ratings slide immediately afterwards. After the Budget in 2014, Fine Gael's ratings fell as low as 22pc, and they were neck and neck for a while with Sinn Fein. It's easy to criticise last October's Budget in hindsight, but Fianna Fail's attacks at the time on the coalition's US-style "right wing" shift found a much less receptive audience.
By the New Year, Shakespeare's "blasts of January" had brought more floods, and support for the coalition started to ebb away once more.
Now it could be that, had an election been called in November, the opposition may have scored as many direct hits. There would still have been debates, gaffes, controversies. But at least the Government would have been more in control of, rather than being controlled by, events.
Chaos might seem too strong a word, especially when the campaign has been slated as dull, but it has felt at times as if no one was in charge.
For Fine Gael, the focus of its troubles was always going to be Enda Kenny himself, who has never been as comfortable in the white heat of a campaign as some of his rivals.
Much of the damage done was self-inflicted. Kenny began stutteringly by taking too long to clarify whether he was prepared to go into government with Michael Lowry TD.
The criticism wasn't wholly fair. The received wisdom says that talking about possible coalition options before the people have had their say comes across as arrogant. In this case, not saying anything was portrayed as shifty, as if Enda had something to hide. To an extent he was damned if he did, damned if he didn't, and, by the time he did categorically rule out the Lowry option, it was too late.
He quickly stumbled again by saying the electorate didn't understand economic jargon.
Again he was right. All that blathering on about the "fiscal space" was off-putting policy stuff. Nonetheless it gave the Taoiseach's opponents a chance to paint him as remote and condescending.
The last two weeks of the campaign were dominated by a similarly frustrating row over whether a grand coalition with Fianna Fail was on the cards. Fianna Fail ruled it out fairly sharpish, but Fine Gael's efforts to do the same were hampered by apparent mixed messages from the Taoiseach. Again, there was an element of mischief in some of the commentary, as political correspondents tried to spin journalistic gold from the straw which they were being given. There was no such confusion, however, about Enda's use of the word "whingers" - and in his own constituency, of all places. That was worse than a crime, in Talleyrand's infamous phrase, it was a blunder. As was his apparent confirmation in the final RTE debate this week that he had made the controversial "appointment" of Seanad by-election candidate John McNulty to the board of the Irish Museum of Modern Art, which seemed to contradict previous versions of the saga. Later came some less than satisfactory clarification, but a question mark did linger.
Fine Gael responded to its failure to make the expected breakthrough mid-campaign by hardening the rhetoric on the risks posed to the recovery by a change of government, buoyed by an intervention from Ibec warning that an "unstable or anti-enterprise government" could threaten tens of thousands of jobs; but by this stage a major counter-theme of the election had emerged, which stressed that people were not feeling the recovery, and, whilst the Taoiseach sought to end the campaign as The Man Who Feels Your Pain, it felt forced.
The failure of fear as a tactic was probably why Labour shifted tack during the campaign from an initial emphasis on accentuating the risk of a change of government to a more robust defence of its achievements within the previous one. With nothing to lose, Joan Burton's demeanour in the final debate was that of a woman ready if necessary to go down fighting on her record rather than just attacking the opposition.
She had an unusual campaign, in that she was the one of the main party leaders with most to lose. For Micheal Martin, the only way was up from Fianna Fail's pounding in 2011. Gerry Adams was also looking at a sharp increase in Sinn Fein seats, whatever else happened. As for Enda, he was going to be Taoiseach again, the first Fine Gael leader ever to lead his party to two successive election wins. Of the four of them, it was Burton who faced a nightmare scenario.
She was also the only party leader to effectively head into the election fending off what looked for a time like a leadership challenge from environment minister Alan Kelly. Internal party wranglings are never helpful during an election campaign, to say the least.
If Burton had a problem with her party, for Sinn Fein it was the other way round - the party had a problem with its leader, whether it acknowledged it or not. There are still some who insist it's unfair to paint Gerry Adams as an electoral liability when he has led Sinn Fein to its current historic high in modern elections; but it's another of those What Ifs. What if Sinn Fein had a different leader, with less baggage, with broader appeal? Hard left party Syriza went from 4.6pc at the 2009 Greek election to topping the poll on 36pc last January under a very engaging leader. After the worst recession in history, the Left here continues to do nowhere near as well. Could it be that Adams is what prevents Sinn Fein breaking through the green ceiling?
It's not simply that he made so many gaffes, but that the gaffes which he did make were intensely revealing of his psychological and political flaws. Misreading the public mood on the Special Criminal Court shone a spotlight on his ambivalent attitude to the legitimacy of the 26-county Irish state, and his ignorance of economic detail reveals a man who has never been entirely comfortable with normal bread and butter politics.
All the benefit which Sinn Fein gained early on in the campaign by exposing a €2bn hole in the Government's spending plans evaporated every time Adams opened his mouth to talk numbers. His final gaffe - "Who's Senator Cahill?" - summed up the problem . Whether he meant it disparagingly, or Mairia Cahill had simply slipped his mind, was irrelevant. Carelessness or callousness were equally damaging qualities to be exhibiting so close to an election with crucial transfers in play.
Fianna Fail's journey has been the most fascinating by far. The party was toxic in 2011 following the financial crash, but, from the start of this campaign, those who went out canvassing with candidates failed to detect the same animosity. It was remarkable by its absence. Fine Gael's reminders of that toxicity fell flat, mainly because its own unpopularity with a sizeable proportion of voters meant many on the centre ground no longer thought of Fianna Fail as the party that wrecked the country, but merely as the party that happened to be in power when the country was wrecked, and that Fine Gael and Labour would have made the same mistakes.
Micheal Martin comes out of the election with his reputation enhanced. So does Stephen Donnelly of the Social Democrats. Both showed gravitas and grace in often peevish circumstances. Here's hoping those who had a bad election last Friday show the same qualities in adversity.