Fionnan Sheahan: Kenny must learn failure is never far away for any party
Published 31/10/2011 | 05:00
Taoiseach Enda Kenny suffered his worst electoral defeat this weekend since becoming Fine Gael leader almost a decade ago.
His party's approach to the presidential election, by-election and referendums was reminiscent of the sense of entitlement and attitude of complacency that lead to Fine Gael's demise in 2002, when its very existence was under threat.
During the late 1990s, the party felt it would be just a matter of time before it would be back in power as, in their arrogance, elements felt the electorate would soon recognise Fine Gael's supposed superiority.
The party as a whole seems to have forgotten the dark days that followed with a meltdown in the subsequent general election.
On the road back from near oblivion in 2002, the party made serious gains in the local elections of 2004 and 2009 to become the biggest party at council level, had victories in the European elections in 2004 and 2009 -- electing more MEPs than anyone else -- made significant gains in the 2007 general election and swept to power with the win in the 2011 general election.
Fine Gael's organisation became the most effective party machine in the country bar none in the past decade. Along the way, difficult decisions were taken, candidates promoted and shafted.
By their nature, politicians make good candidates, but don't always make good strategists. When the roles get confused, trouble follows.
Suddenly the parliamentary party decided it knew better than the backroom boys.
Kenny, as leader, must accept his share of the responsibility for the party's dismal showing in this election.
But the blame goes far wider than Kenny.
The entire organisation, ministers, TDs, senators, councillors and grassroots members alike, will have to closely examine the entrails of this campaign.
On the back of its general election win, Fine Gael convinced itself it was invincible and the presidency would follow as a right.
The voters thought differently.
Putting a candidate in the field, not based on his electability, was an act of hubris the party ought to have consigned to its history.
Gay Mitchell will have numerous fingers pointed at him and his inadequacies as a presidential candidate.
While it's easy to scapegoat a loser, the party has to ask itself how and why he ended up as the candidate.
Understandably taking the eye off the ball after going into Government, Fine Gael entered the opening stages of the campaign with no obvious candidate.
Fine Gael MEP Mairead McGuinness was the first to declare, but without much warmth from the party hierarchy. When former Taoiseach John Bruton wasn't interested, the search went wider with former PD Pat Cox coming into the frame.
Comparisons were being made with President Mary McAleese's nomination by Fianna Fail against former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds in 1997.
But McAleese did have a subtle and concerted effort from the party leadership behind her.
The mere idea of a complete outsider, with a history in the PDs and Fianna Fail, being imposed on the membership at the behest of Fine Gael headquarters was misguided, to say the least.
Mitchell won the nomination. But the lack of a dynamic candidate led to a lacklustre campaign.
Fighting an election that was a loss from the off, Fine Gael headquarters was not a happy place over the last four weeks.
The massed ranks who celebrated Mitchell's candidacy went missing when the real work needed to be done.
Ministers were asked to help out, but few enough provided diary details.
Mitchell was difficult to deal with and there was no confidence in his ability to win.
A meeting took place at 8.30am every weekday in Fine Gael headquarters with director of elections Charlie Flanagan, strategist Frank Flannery, general secretary Tom Curran, executive council chairman Brian Murphy, media director Tom Fabozzi and press officer Emma Hynes.
Once a week, there was a wider campaign meeting. Everybody could tell Mitchell was going nowhere.
A concerted decision was taken to target Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness over his IRA past. The scenario envisaged was that McGuinness would be in contention and Mitchell would be the candidate to protect the presidency from Sinn Fein.
Neither candidate ever rose to the top and Mitchell inflicted blows on McGuinness without benefiting himself.
Mitchell stuck rigidly to his stance as a serious politician for serious times, at odds with the mood of the public.
Weeks out, Fine Gael TDs said they knew of supporters who were switching to Michael D Higgins, not out of a sense of disloyalty but because their candidate had no hope.
In the end, Fine Gael strategists curbed their spending on his campaign in the closing weeks as it was obvious he wouldn't win.
"We saved a bit in the end. If he was at 20, 21, 22pc, we'd have thrown money at it. We pulled back," a senior campaign source said.
The party recorded an appaling result in the Dublin West by-election -- again down to poor candidate selection.
And Alan Shatter's ego showed it can have negative political consequences as his treatment of the electorate contributed to the defeat of the Oireachtas powers referendum.
Fine Gael was abjectly humiliated this weekend and the party was delivered a stark reminder than failure is never far away in politics.
It showed it's never a good time to rest on your laurels. Whether the wake-up call will be listened to remains to be seen.
The winning streak of the Kenny era has come to a sudden halt.