Friday 24 March 2017

John Drennan: How FG's nice guys got nasty and won

The canny Blueshirts have learned from their old enemy, Fianna Fail, and are poised to take power, writes John Drennan

The perfect moment for Fine Gael in what was an almost perfect election campaign came the day before polling. All of the media attention last Thursday was focused on the Red C revelation that FG had breached the psychological 40 per cent threshold.

But a Millward Brown poll on the same day -- which revealed that when it came to issues such as managing public finances, the deficit and reform of the public sector, FG was thrashing Labour by a margin of more than two to one -- was far more critical.

The findings showed that, for the first time since 1982 FG had won the economic argument. Labour's policies in contrast were seen to be scarcely more credible than those of Fianna Fail and elections, like all wars, are decided by "the economy, stupid".

Of course, it also helps if you have good generals and on this occasion, for once, although they have acquired an unwanted passenger, FG was the biggest winner in this war.

One of the more entertaining Dail interludes occurred some years ago when following Bertie Ahern's embrace of municipal socialism, Joe Higgins spoke of his shock at the discovery that Ahern had rooted through his wardrobe and stolen all his clothes.

After Fine Gael's triumph Micheal Martin must be experiencing similar sensations. Politicians, and in particular FG ones, rarely learn from the mistakes of history but this really was the election where Fine Gael robbed all of FF's clothes and did to FF what it has been doing to FG for decades.

The party was once famously described by Sean Lemass as being the "nicest, most decent, harmless body of men you would wish to meet" but on this occasion FG, be it within the constituencies or on the airwaves, out-thought and outfought FF.

In contrast, although it will sneak into government via the back door, Labour experienced a campaign which was, when it came to the broader national picture, almost as disastrous as John Bruton's failure to contain the Spring tide of 1992.

It is always easy to be wise in hindsight and Labour was right to raise the Gilmore-for-Taoiseach line if only to prove the sky would not fall in were such a possibility to occur. But the problem with betting the pot on Gilmore was that Labour only had one song and when the public tired of the tune there was nothing left.

Sadly, when Labour attempted to turn the campaign around they ended up fighting the wrong war on the wrong ground at the wrong time. It was bad enough that Labour looked desperate (and unoriginal) when it engaged in a modern-day reprise of Michael McDowell's trick of shinning up a lamp-post with a host of beware-of-single party government posters.

The real problem, though, was that the political conditions were entirely different. The voters may have loved Bertie but there was no way they were going to leave Mr Ahern alone in charge of the shop.

In contrast, no one would ever be concerned about Enda so long as he wasn't given anything too complicated to do.

There was another critical reason why the more its 'socialist friends' in Labour attacked Enda the happier FG was. The clever generals of FG, you see, had also played another cunning card, for once it became clear the leader was their weakest link they simply removed Enda Kenny from the campaign.

It was a move which certainly caught Labour, and the media, on the hop, for since the Haughey-Fitzgerald era Irish elections have generally followed a presidential pattern. On this occasion, however, when it came to the decision of the middle-class wing of the electorate to move to FG, the 'Enda issue' has been discounted.

In fairness Kenny was not entirely excised from the picture. Indeed, on the first week, as Enda smiled bashfully at Angela Merkel it was hard to know whether FF should sue FG for identity theft or for egregious acts of plagiarism.

Ultimately FG, however, turned the campaign into a battle of ideas and, shockingly, the Blueshirts were the only party with a plan. And though plenty of the FG policies are less than compelling they also had the comfort blanket of Michael Noonan who acts almost as a collective national soother.

FG's lucky generals were also blessed in one other critical regard, for Micheal Martin, the Cork sly fox, would really have been better off hiding out in some convent in Cork for the duration. From the moment FF began to focus its ire on Sinn Fein the ides were ominous. Micheal Martin may have dismantled Gerry Adams in the battle of the smaller party leaders but so too did Michael McDowell. And the fact that Mr Martin was concentrating his fire on Adams spoke volumes about the fatal modesty of FF's ambitions.

And though some believe he started reasonably well, by the close the sly fox's brand of political nihilism was as irritating as the sort of small dog that looks up with pleading innocent brown eyes while he does unspeakable things to your crisply ironed trouser leg.

Ultimately, the most critical factor in the election was the realisation by FG that all elections are decided by simple single issues.

In our case, like France in 1940, which was defeated even before the Germans attacked, all the Irish electorate wants is stability. Reform would also be nice but critically, for FG at least, what the voters wanted was one voice from one captain.

And, well before they admitted it in public, FG's top strategists knew that was what the voters would choose.

The proof of this particular pudding arrived on Friday as, in the political equivalent of a white flight, the cautious middle classes fled the FF ghetto and flocked to the leafy FG suburbs.

Enough of them may have stayed in the Labour half-way house to foil the dream of single-party government.

Meanwhile, nothing epitomised the new ruthlessness of Fine Gael than their response when Labour came crawling back to the coalition bandwagon.

Fine Gael's response to Gilmore's espousal of the virtues of an FG-Labour coalition was to stick the knife into the rib of its weakened opponents by refusing to urge their voters to transfer to Labour.

It was an ambush that would even have impressed FF.

In the aftermath of it all, Enda Kenny is now starting to bear an uncanny resemblance to the famous movie character from the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns called 'the man with no name'.

Like the laconic Clint Eastwood character, we know nothing of his interior personality but he has won 'a fistful of' seats that could see him home to the Taoiseach's office without any Labour matron to keep an eye on him.

Of course, colder voices will say that comparing Mr Kenny to Clint Eastwood's mythical gunslinger is excessively kind and that a far more accurate template for Enda is the ghostly presence in Hugh Mearn's poem called 'the little man who wasn't there'.

If that is the case we can say that after this election that he won't be there for very long.

Mind you, it wouldn't be the first time we made that prophecy about 'the most stupid man in Irish politics' and look where it has gotten us.

Sunday Independent

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