Monday 26 September 2016

Fine Gael must up its game and may yet have to kiss and make up with Fianna Fáil

Published 27/10/2015 | 02:30

The Government is still short of where it needs to be in order to get re-elected
The Government is still short of where it needs to be in order to get re-elected

It's quite puzzling. Imagine on the day that Fine Gael and Labour came to power, somebody had said then that three or four months from the next election, the economy would be the fastest-growing in Europe, unemployment would drop to single digits, the fiscal crisis would be largely sorted, the Troika would be gone and the final Budget would match anything from the McCreevy era.

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You'd have thought: "Game over, the Coalition will be returned with another landslide." The kitchen sink has been thrown at the Irish electorate in the shape of a giveaway Budget. But it hasn't had the desired impact.

The Government is still short of where it needs to be in order to get re-elected. Fine Gael up two points to 30pc is at a three-year high. But at 7pc, according to a Red C poll, the Labour leadership must be relieved they dug their heels in on a November election. Despite the scenario outlined at the outset, the Coalition is continuing to struggle.

Why? The only plausible answer is trust, or lack thereof.

The hunch is that many voters feel let down by the Government, particularly Labour. As of now, voters are not going to be won over even by a budget giveaway. The tough medicine administered in the first three years of the its term is still leaving a bad taste.

For this writer, there was no alternative to that tough medicine.

But not everyone agrees. Expectations were raised so high during the Celtic Tiger era that readjustment was always going to be very difficult.

And that was exacerbated by the election campaign fought by Fine Gael and Labour five years ago.

It was blatantly obvious from 2008 on that, to borrow a phrase from a previous crisis, the country was living way beyond its means. A reduction in living standards was unavoidable.

Brian Cowen and Brian Lenihan belatedly realised that and cut spending and raised taxes. They were politically crucified, less for the policies that led us to disaster in the first place, more for the harsh measures required to ensure salaries were paid and the banks stayed open.

Yet through all this, Fine Gael and Labour in opposition continued to insist that there was some form of magical, less painful alternative.

'Frankfurt's way or Labour's way', 'Not another cent to the banks' were the catch cries.

It was nonsense. And they surely knew it was nonsense. There was no painless way to bring the State back from the abyss.

To their credit, Fine Gael and Labour, when they actually got to government, did what had to be done, effectively continuing the fiscal path of Cowen and Lenihan. It produced results. The turnaround in the economy has been extraordinary - not so, though, for the Coalition's political fortunes.

Maybe what was required was so painful that voters would never have accepted it, even if Fine Gael and Labour had been straight up from the start. Maybe.

But the sense is that people feel they've been duped. They were promised something that wasn't (or couldn't have been) delivered. Trust has been lost.

And once lost, it's almost impossible to regain. That's not to say the Coalition has no chance of being re-elected. An extra five points between them and they're back in the game. But clearly Fine Gael and, in particular, Labour are facing an uphill struggle.

And for that reason, Fine Gael needs to start weighing up an election plan 'B' (and a plan 'C').

Plan 'B' involves a selection of Independents, plus possibly Renua and/or the Social Democrats, supplementing it and Labour. But given the current fragmentation in politics, even that might not be enough.

Which means the hitherto unthinkable 'Plan C' - coalition with Fianna Fáil - cannot be entirely discounted. It still looks unlikely to happen. It's hard to get away from the feeling that when it comes to actually electing a government, voters may reluctantly play it 'safe' and go for stability over uncertainty. We saw that happen in the UK and the same may hold for FG/Labour.

Fianna Fáil will also be hugely reluctant to accept being the junior partner, in the process leaving the opposition benches completely open to Sinn Féin.

But the consistency of polls pointing to a hung Dáil means the FG-FF option cannot be ruled out. So Fine Gael needs to avoid the mistakes of five years ago. It clearly has to campaign for a return of the current Coalition. Nor can it be seen to even hint at the option of a link-up with Fianna Fáil. But it also needs to avoid being overly trenchant in its dismissal of FF.

Voters do not like being taken for fools. If Fine Gael ends up in government with the party that it had consistently rubbished in previous months for "putting us in the mess we're in" - as Richard Bruton put it yesterday - then it immediately has a huge credibility problem with the electorate.

If the last election taught us anything, it's that the old adage of voters not taking election promises seriously has been totally debunked.

Fine Gael will lead the next government. But if it wants to keep its hard-won number-one status beyond that, it needs to box cleverer than it did in 2010-11.

Shane Coleman presents 'The Sunday Show' at 10am on

Irish Independent

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