Government gained no votes for championing the agenda of Dublin 4
Published 29/02/2016 | 02:30
Both Fine Gael and Labour need to ask themselves why their enthusiastic championing of a liberal/left social agenda earned them no electoral dividend.
In the election campaign, Labour in particular boasted about being instrumental in introducing Ireland's first piece of abortion legislation in 2013, securing the marriage referendum and telling voters that only by opting for them would a referendum to repeal our pro-life amendment be assured.
Labour managed a pitiful 6.6pc of the vote on Friday. That is barely more than a sixth of the 'tiny minority' of 38pc who voted against same-sex marriage last May. Indeed, that 38pc is 13 points more than Fine Gael secured in the election.
In fact, that 38pc is five points more than the combined support for both Government parties.
Labour clearly thought that its social issues agenda was a vote-winner. It was dead wrong, but it's obvious the party leadership believed more strongly in abortion, gay marriage and attacking denominational education than in redistributive economic policies.
Voters interested in that abandoned Labour in their droves.
Fine Gael's situation is also pitiable. Michael Ring, having been returned for the party in Mayo, wondered out loud whether Fine Gael had spent too much time listening to the "Dublin 4 brigade".
Essentially, Fine Gael allowed itself to be imprisoned, ideologically speaking, in a Dublin 4 echo chamber.
This effect was massively amplified by the fact that the media too exists in that echo chamber and ministers spent their whole time being grilled by journalists who ask the sort of questions that chime with the prejudices and priorities of Dublin 4.
This is one reason why the Government was peppered with questions all the time about the repeal of the Eighth Amendment.
Most journalists want it to be repealed and they know the questions they ask set the agenda.
Enda bought time by bouncing the issue over to another 'constitutional assembly', but we all know he would have eventually succumbed to the pressure, because that's what he does.
One reason Lucinda Creighton and Renua found it impossible to escape from the abortion issue was because they were always being asked about it by journalists as well. To avoid being associated with this issue only, Lucinda basically stopped talking about it, voted for same-sex marriage, did not include the right to life in the Renua manifesto and so fell between two stools; liberals and die-hard Fine Gaelers hated her and too many pro-lifers lost enthusiasm for her because she seemed to be giving them the cold shoulder. It is hugely regrettable that people like her and Terence Flanagan in Dublin Bay North were not returned. It is doubly regrettable that the extremely nasty, personalised, negative campaign that Fine Gael subjected her to worked.
Still, Fine Gael can console itself that its continual, non-stop pandering to Dublin 4 worked a treat in that part of Dublin. The trouble is that it didn't work too well elsewhere.
I am not saying, by the way, that the Government's relentless pursuit of a liberal/left social agenda is what defeated it, far from it. Economic issues were the prime cause of that.
But it didn't help them, and, in the case of Fine Gael, it surely cost them a few percentage points. There are a lot of lapsed Fine Gaelers like me out there who are thoroughly disillusioned with the party for the way it has continually kicked us in the teeth ever since coming to power.
Enda has been a dream Taoiseach for those who hate the Catholic Church because he is a Mass-goer who closed the embassy to the Holy See, introduced our first abortion law, radically redefined marriage and the family and let Labour take continual pot-shots at faith schools. No government has been more secularising.
So that did cause quite a few Fine Gael supporters to walk away from the party, and it also caused Fine Gael to lose all the pro-life Fianna Fáil supporters it gained last time by lying through its teeth when it promised not to introduce abortion legislation.
Every politician should also note how well Mattie McGrath, Michael Healy-Rae and John McGuinness did. All three of them publicly stated they would be voting against same-sex marriage.
I'm not claiming they won too many votes because of this, but it did them no harm whatsoever. I met several politicians who said privately they would be voting No last May but would not say so publicly because they were scared rigid of the Yes side. They need have had no such fears.
The pro-life vote has now gone back to Fianna Fáil. Like Enda Kenny, Micheál Martin stayed neutral on the matter, partly not to offend Dublin 4 and the media, partly because he is himself ambivalent about it and partly to win back a few seats in Dublin. But most of his newly elected Dublin TDs, Sean Haughey, Darragh O'Brien, John Curran and Jack Chambers said during the election campaign that they opposed repeal of the Eighth Amendment.
Considerably more than half of the Fianna Fáil TDs so far elected said the same or else they voted against the 2013 abortion law. More and more made that pledge during the campaign because, insofar as the issue of abortion was coming up on the doorstep at all, it was being mentioned by pro-life voters more than pro-choice ones.
Will Fine Gael learn any lessons from any of this or will it continue to live in a Dublin 4 echo chamber? If the rural TDs fight back hard against the total take-over of their party by its liberal wing, then there is a chance this might happen; otherwise, no.