Friday 26 December 2014

Fine Gael needs to regain its comfort-food role

John Drennan writes that Fine Gael's loss of the competence factor now threatens Enda's own political future

Published 24/08/2014 | 02:30

It might appear strange that, even as he continues to rule with a record majority and juggle with the possibility of becoming the President of the EU Council, we can actually ask where has it all gone wrong, Enda.

But, despite the current phoney peace, that is precisely where we are at when it comes to Fine Gael's increasingly strange leader.

Less than a year has passed since the apotheosis of 'autocratic Enda', where the party's cunning pursuit of the insider classes of the country meant Fine Gael were poised to become the next Fianna Fail in all but name.

Of course, in a sense the answer to the 'why has it all gone wrong' question, lies in that peculiar ambition.

It might once have been a worthy ambition to become the new Fianna Fail.

However, as that party of milk-and-water-loving sheep linger in an unloved limbo, one would have thought that even Fine Gael would realise imitating Fianna Fail is now a road best not travelled.

Such, however is the power of the ongoing 'Stockholm syndrome' that Fianna Fail's smaller siblings have internalised, Fine Gael still ache to become like their ancestral enemies.

In fairness, it is easy to understand why in the past, Fine Gael would sigh wistfully at the glitz and glamour of the old school Fianna Fail tough boys who always got to walk away with the pretty girls.

But, while it may have seemed unfair, the cruel deterministic truth is that the voters have always wanted Fine Gael to play a different role in the Irish political pantheon.

Fine Gael might like to imagine they are, in political terms, the equivalent of a five-star Michelin hotel that serves haute cuisine.

The problem with that notion is that the Fine Gael voter is that man who still eats his dinner in the middle of the day - every day.

This reality means that while it is, alas, unglamorous, those who vote for Fine Gael want to dine on the political equivalent of comfort food.

Fine Gael are, in the minds of the all-important voters, the sort of stolid Midlands hotel experience that specialises in roast chicken and a mountain of mashed potato on every plate, and on special days, a nice slab of un-threatening steak that has been fried so thoroughly there isn't a fleck of pink to be found.

The problem FG now faces is that suddenly, under the leadership of Enda, the party has pauperised itself in the reliability stakes.

Michael Noonan may be still the great national grandfather, but the relative performances of Alan Shatter and James Reilly, both of whom significantly were 'Enda's picks', in Justice and Health, have done lasting damage to the Fine Gael 'old reliables' brand.

The initial and most damaging breach in the Fine Gael reputation for stolid governance and honest political fare occurred in the Department of Justice.

It was once the case that Fine Gael were the grumpy old nurses who, during the era of Haughey and Sean Doherty, were expected to tidy up the miasma of chaos and resignations that FF would leave behind.

Few would have thought when Enda appointed the cleverest man in Ireland to be Justice Minister in 2011 that we would experience anything even approaching a reprise of such days.

Anyway, as Mr Cowen used to famously say, "we are where we are" and the "where we are" in Justice with bodies strewn across the political and mandarin field is not a pretty sight.

The chaotic nature of Mr Shatter's departure and the many loose strings that remain to be tightened means trust in Fine Gael's managerial competence has been seriously eroded.

This process was further intensified by James Reilly's colourful capers in Health, where the Minister's attitude to budgets resembled Humpty Dumpty's haughty pronouncement in Alice in Wonderland that, "when I use a word - it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less'.

Sadly, the amiable but utterly chaotic reign of Reilly has left Fine Gael's status as the sort of party who runs the country with the same caution of Captain Mainwaring in 1939, resembling the china shop after the bull has been silenced with the tranquilliser gun.

Leo is doing his best and the humane killing of UHI with scarce a murmur of dissent, even from the opposition, is no bad start.

Sadly, the contagion of public uncertainty about FG's capacity to fulfil its designated role has spread beyond the initial ministerial bad boys of Health and Justice.

And alarmingly the next site of infection may consist of the critical Finance ministry.

The great illusionist Michael Noonan has escaped close public scrutiny to date.

But he has been increasingly struggling to maintain the three-card trick, where Fine Gael pose as a low tax party via the absence of increases in the basic rate of tax, while a thousand other stealth increases in everything from your pension levies to your water charges make up the difference.

Having negotiated his way sagely through a deflationary fiscal minefield, Mr Noonan may yet find a half-recovering economy and a fully expectant electorate is a far trickier prospect.

Ironically, the greatest threat of all to the party may be posed by the increasingly erratic performance of Enda.

Like the tales of the Norman invaders who became more Irish than the Irish, our 'Dear Leader' now looks more like a Fianna Fail Taoiseach than anything that Fianna Fail could come up with on their very own.

The problem with this unfortunate metamorphosis is that it has started to spook and alienate the citizenry.

Paddy may be a capricious creature, but the one thing he is politically sure about is that he didn't vote for a Fianna Fail Lite Taoiseach in 2011.

And he certainly did not vote for the sort of scenario where, the Fine Gael comfort food-cooking Mum has turned feral to such an extent that they are now the Madmen who are thrashing the joint.

It may be summer time, Enda, and for now the living is easy. But, particularly since that re-shuffle, they are looking past you to seek a future with Frances or Leo. Some, though their numbers are declining, are even looking in the direction of Simon Coveney.

In better times, Enda used to like to promise that Harry Truman's 'the buck stops here' line would be the political motif of his premiership.

If he is not careful and does not up his game substantially, Dear Leader Enda might yet experience the delights of living up to that promise.

Sunday Independent

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