Eoghan Harris: Tiger-tamed FF forgot how to go for the jugular
Published 09/12/2012 | 05:00
Faced with the Government's open goal, the stands packed with private-sector workers calling on them to sink the Budget ball in the back of the net, Fianna Fail fluffed the shot and surrendered the top media slots to Sinn Fein strikers.
True, Senator Darragh O'Brien put in a strong show in the RTE studio, putting a peevish Pat Rabbitte in second place. But Michael McGrath's carefully crafted Dail speech lacked power and passion. Sean Fleming's is best forgotten.
Pat McParland, the party's hard-working director of communications, may be tempted to blame RTE for favouring Sinn Fein. Normally he would have a case. RTE is far too fond of teeing up an alleged "opposition reaction", which too often turns out to be only a Sinn Fein reaction.
But this time RTE was reacting to what was going down in the Dail. Pearse Doherty put in a powerful performance, reminiscent of Rabbitte's indelible indictment of Fianna Fail when he appeared with Pat Carey on Prime Time.
Doherty had baggage, however, in the form of Aengus 'Wolfe Toner' O Snodaigh sitting prominently behind him. So why did Fianna Fail not dwell on this? Because it has lost touch with its tougher traditions.
Faced with the kind of criticism I am making here, Fianna Fail has two choices. Get defensive and go into denial. Or take a hard look at its current flawed ideology, learn from its hard history and cure its current mawkish media habits.
Let's begin by surveying the battlefield of the Budget. Blow away the smoke, clean off the mirror and the Budget boiled down to two issues. The promissory note and the public finances. All the rest was small change.
Abroad, Fianna Fail has failed to hammer home the collapse of Kenny & Co's ECB campaign. At home, it has funked pointing out the connection between protecting public sector pay and cutting the carer's respite allowance.
The Irish Independent's Brendan Keenan put the problem succinctly in the RTE studio.
"We still have an €8bn deficit on the running of the public services – after a Budget like this. That basic €8bn just to pay our basic bill, no interest at all, is a terrifying figure."
So it is. And a big portion of that €8bn is tied up in paying the public sector elite, including the political class. The same class that drew up this Budget. Which explains the callous lack of empathy with the carers.
Maureen Gaffney in her tour de force on The Late Late Show told us that in meetings around the
country, she felt people had given up on the public realm. No wonder.
She also said that while Irish people were happy in their private realm, some were "really happy". My hunch is that nearly all of the "really happy" people are in the protected political, senior civil servant and banking class.
Of course, cuts in political pay and pensions would make no major difference to the pay packet of the private sector. But they would make a massive difference to its morale. Make us feel we were one country, one community.
Be clear. I do not believe this country is divided into public and private sector. It's divided between those who have to do panicky tots after this Budget and those who don't. You can be sure that cabinet ministers and senior public servants around the €100,000 mark aren't doing panicky tots.
Fianna Fail's first task is to figure out where the class politics of the lower-paid public sector and that of the majority private sector coincide. An honest accounting means ending its lethal love affair with the Croke Park class.
Bertie Ahern, with the full backing of Fine Gael and Labour, tried to secure the permanent support of the public sector by giving it an ATM. Far from being grateful, it danced on his political grave. It's time his successors faced facts.
Fianna Fail is wasting its time wooing the public sector. That sector now belongs to the Labour Party. It should be left to it, not least because the public sector unions are taking the Labour Party to its last resting place.
Politics is about a choice of enemies. Fianna Fail cannot continue its catch-all policy without coming a cropper at the polls. It cannot credibly represent the private sector without taking on fatter parts of the public sector.
Slaying the sacred cow of Croke Park would bring Fianna Fail many benefits. Give it a clean conscience, cut it off from the fat cats, place it firmly on the side of the majority and give it an edge with Labour voters.
Eddie Hobbs has that edge. It comes from being comfortable with his class background. Hobbs neither speaks in the plummy tones of the Cork bourgeoisie, nor suffers from its delusions.
Last week, Hobbs did a stunning film on the Civil War. The emotional reactions of even great- grandchildren showed how long historical wounds linger. The film should have provided food for thought for Fianna Fail.
De Valera betrayed his better angels by opposing the Treaty and plunging the country into civil war. But he spent the rest of his life making up for it, not least by crushing the quasi-fascist IRA during World War Two.
In passing, let me point out that Dev would never have done a deal with the Provos, even if it took another 30 years. Fianna Fail should stay true to him by putting aside any thought of playing footsie with Sinn Fein.
But Fianna Fail can also celebrate past success. Victoria White, in a recent brilliant polemic for the Irish Examiner, reminded us that if Fianna Fail broke the country, it also built it up. From Lemass to Ahern, it can claim credit for running water, public housing, free education and brokering peace in Northern Ireland.
Last week, a fighting Fianna Fail should have looked back to the lean tradition of Lemass, called on the political class to take bigger cuts, stuck it to Sinn Fein about its dedication of a children's playground to the terrorist Raymond McCreesh and suggested a pluralist solution to the flags problem in Northern Ireland: fly all flags.
Fianna Fail could not credibly do so because its own snout is stuck in the same selfish trough as the Government. And until it stops feeding like swine, it will never win the same public trust as frugal leaders like De Valera and Lemass.
But none of this explains the emollience of Michael McGrath and so many Fianna Fail speakers. Why did they not lash the leader of the Labour Party in places where it would hurt? Like this.
"You, Tanaiste, are paid more than David Cameron. Your wife is also on the public payroll at a fat salary of €92,000. At the same time, you deprive the carers of the country of their due. Shame on you."
Fianna Fail has forgotten how to go for the jugular. And that's no accident. During the Celtic Tiger, Fianna Fail was emasculated by expensive PR training, which emphasised emollience at the expense of the edged barb.
These problems cannot be solved by Fianna Fail's director of communications. They are party problems. Until Fianna Fail faces them, it will not be fit for Government.