Friday 30 September 2016

As the curtain goes up on election, it is make or break for gang of four

Published 21/01/2016 | 02:30

Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: Mark Condren
Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: Mark Condren
Tánaiste Joan Burton. Photo: Mark Condren
Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein. Photo: Arthur Carron
Micheál Martin of Fianna Fáil. Photo: Tom Burke

Jim Gavin, Dublin's football supremo, has a simple but powerful message for his players before big showdowns: "Be the best that you can be." It's enough to win.

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It is not a big leap to suggest that the same fixed focus, composure under pressure, and the delivery of talent in key moments applies to party leaders on the eve of a fiercely fought election. On their shoulders rest the hopes, ambitions and responsibility for their team's success. Campaigns, after all, are pretty much presidential in style and substance.

There is a format which is followed faithfully. The score card is marked by the following: leaders' TV debates, keynote media interviews for every station and newspaper, constituency tours, and the careful dissemination of daily soundbites.

Amid the intense scrutiny in the white heat of battle, a momentary slip or a single inappropriate gaffe can mark a turning point that can define the chance of either success or failure. For 16 hours per day, seven days a week, all must maintain maximum concentration.

My spotlight is on the four main party leaders: Enda Kenny, Joan Burton, Micheál Martin and Gerry Adams. All business plans or enterprises of any import, require strategists planning objectives SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis.

These include setting minimum achievable targets, frank assessments of personality traits, optimum deployment of limited resources and ensuring that the top honcho brings nothing short of their 'A' game to the battle. Here are my SWOT assessments for the Gang of Four as the curtain goes up on election 2016:

ENDA KENNY

In 2011, many couldn't even visualise him as Taoiseach. But he's done the gig and prospered. It's his election to lose. His style of leadership as chairman, rather than CEO, facilitates the maximum delegation of detail in policy. His personality strengths are courage, l ageless energy levels, and practised and polished people skills. The easy charm conceals a weaknesses born out of a stubbornness which is bordering on hubris.

He is at his best on the stump engaging with ordinary punters, just as he is weakest when facing lengthy media interviews. His famous forays off script have produced many a hairy moment.

This has resulted in tight control by handlers. He's been under fire for refusing head-to-head debates and avoiding probing interviews. Such reticence undermines public trust in him.

The minimum requirement for him to achieve will be 55 FG seats. They have a stated target objective of 62+ TDs.

If these are held at Labour's expense, so be it. There will be careful moves to conceal the cannibalisation of its coalition partner throughout the campaign.

But the ground war aimed at subsuming seats will be fearsome.

This may be Enda's last campaign. The upside of victory will be to cement his place in history as the only FG leader to actually secure a return to power. It also opens up the prospect of retirement in 2018 with a run as a presidential candidate for a glorious finale in the Park.

An under performance could prompt a repeat of the 2010 internal heave, terminating his 14-year tenure as boss.

MICHEÁL MARTIN

Mr Martin is first and foremost a cute Corkman - never to be underestimated in relation to the survival skills, guile or charm. He too conceals an inner core of steel. He's been around the course and survived a baptism of fire in 2011 with the worst FF result in an 85-year history. His strengths are confident communications, charm, extensive ministerial experience in education, health, enterprise/employment and foreign affairs.

Beyond the FG pretenders, he is the only credible alternative Taoiseach.

His outward weakness is a lack of assurance which impacts on his air of authority. He also shows a tendency towards indecision. He goes a little bit of the road with everybody. It was typical of him to describe FF's philosophical position as "a bit to the left" - not outrageous enough to be right of centre, not ballsy enough to be socialist, preferring the comfort of the median strip, while still attempting to avoid being labelled as 'centrist'. He's at his most comfortable either opposing cuts, or flailing the Shinners.

But this amounts to little more than gathering the low-hanging fruit. His safety first and risk averse tendencies amount to an Achilles' heel. It's a make-or-break contest for him as party leader. Failing to achieve minimum targets of 32 seats or 20pc of the vote and keep ahead of Sinn Féin would mean his critics will come calling for his head.

A good result would be 40 TDs, thus cementing his tenure for the 32nd Dáil. He may have to choose between being Tánaiste or else adopting a Neil Kinnock-type recovery role in opposition, to bookend his political career. But it's too early to definitively write off his prospects of returning to power. Never forget FF remain the most likely depository for disaffected FG voters across the country. His seat in Cork South-Central (now reduced to a four-seater) isn't entirely safe, his colleague Michael McGrath is ahead in private polls.

JOAN BURTON

The Labour leader found herself on the bridge of the Titanic in the aftermath of disastrous local and European elections for Labour.

She now faces a horrendous outcome if Labour ends up with 6-9pc support. A loss of 30 seats from 2011 looms; minimal targets would be 10pc of votes yielding 12 TDs. Her own seat should be okay in Dublin West, through FG transfers, but she isn't certain of re-election, as happened in 1997.

Her attributes are a fearless self-belief, she is also the top-ranking, most articulate woman leader, always well briefed and energetic. Her vulnerability is that by being welfare minister throughout the austerity era budgets which cut entitlements to both the jobless and lone parents, she could face a bitter backlash. She also carries the can for past false promises.

She and her party can expect to feel the vengeance from a disaffected electorate. A deep denial on suffering retribution from angry voters is endemic within the party. As seat tallies slide, it'll become all too apparent that Labour couldn't really afford to lose the formidable brains trust of three former leaders (Quinn, Rabbitte and Gilmore) in one fell swoop. She is under acute pressure, there is an onus to retain composure and not live up to her caricature of being shrill, and lacking in empathy.

GERRY ADAMS

This must surely be his last hurrah as Sinn Féin president.

His history is so polarising that critics cannot see his evident allure and charm skills on the stump. This is evidenced in his maintaining a deferential politeness even while being pilloried relentlessly. His minimum target is 20 seats; key objectives would be surpassing 20pc of the vote and securing 25 TDs. His appeal is strongest in the border constituencies of Monaghan, Cavan, Donegal and Louth. His strength has been maintaining Republican unity with past and present factions.

Leading opposition rather than government is clearly the 2016 objective. The goal of replacing Labour in leading the left is in sight.

All predictions are for significant growth in market share.

Remember Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg? Careers terminate when minimum targets aren't achieved.

It's make or break time over the coming weeks. Take a deep breath, it's time to roll the dice, as the winner takes all.

Irish Independent

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