Monday 26 September 2016

Hand-to-hand combat begins and a brutal, unforgiving campaign lies in store

Published 06/02/2016 | 02:30

Fianna Fáil’s Mary Fitzpatrick takes a ‘selfie’ with party leader Micheál Martin, Senator Mary White and Councillor Cormac Devlin at the launch of their General Election campaign at their election headquarters on Mount Street, Dublin. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Fianna Fáil’s Mary Fitzpatrick takes a ‘selfie’ with party leader Micheál Martin, Senator Mary White and Councillor Cormac Devlin at the launch of their General Election campaign at their election headquarters on Mount Street, Dublin. Photo: Steve Humphreys

So it's started. You'll have the aerial war fought on airwaves and print and the ground war - the hand-to-hand combat that takes place on the doorsteps of the country.

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All over Ireland, thousands of men and women will be promoting their candidates who have put themselves before the people.

In the age of the iPad, social media and a 24/7 news cycle, you may well ask if trudging through the streets on a dank, miserable night banging on people's doors is really necessary.

Well in my view, the answer is yes. Absolutely. The intention is to make a connection and leave a lasting impression.

This time out, with everything so uncertain, that personal touch which translates into a recognition factor could be crucial. The field could hardly be more congested, so standing out from the crowd, and having a message and manifesto that are memorable and strike the right chord, is crucial.

When I was on the hustings, my slogan was straightforward: "Not here just for the election." The door was open. People came to you with all kinds of difficulties and you did what you could.

Now it's the turn of the people to pick through the issues and these will be teased out at the height of the sound and fury that come with all campaigns.

But let's hope that's it's not all noise. There is a chance to go through the challenges and solutions that confront us and this should be done in a dignified and respectful way.

We have weathered the storms of the worst recession since the war reasonably well.

As to the race itself, the midweek 'Irish Times' and Ipsos MRBI opinion poll show some fascinating insights. The state of the parties suggests that things are much closer, and margins tighter, than many had thought.

Fine Gael (on 28pc, down two points) ahead of Independents/Others (on 25p, up two points); Fianna Fáil (on 21pc, up two points) is narrowly ahead of Sinn Féin (on 19pc, down two points). Labour is on 7pc (unchanged).

The outgoing Government parties must be wondering why their message of recovery is not paying off. Slipping below 30pc will be troubling for Fine Gael.

When Independents can gobble up 25pc of votes, clearly a lot of people have drifted from the established parties.

Revisiting the 2011 results, you will see that FG managed to win 76 seats on 36pc of the vote. Labour mopped up 37 seats on 19pc. When you drill down through the figures, you find that 55pc of the vote gave the Government parties 68pc of the seats.

But the latest poll shows Labour dropping below 10pc to 7pc. It is heading towards its 1987 catastrophe when Labour got just 6.5pc. This was on the back of presiding over unemployment levels higher than 20pc and economic indicators that were worse than Ethiopia.

The party does have a happy knack of getting close to 10pc, always managing to capture between 10 and 15 seats.

While all opinion polls, especially at such an early stage, must be treated with caution, it is obvious that, with a combined total of only 35pc, the outgoing Coalition is a long way from home.

Having fought in 10 elections for my own party, my thoughts naturally turn to the prospects for Fianna Fáil.

A stake of 21pc gives it a shot of at least one seat - possibly more - in most constituencies.

In a sense, there are two contests taking place. One is to become the government of the day; the other is to become the dominant opposition party.

If Fianna Fáil does not find itself in Government, then its priority has to be to establish itself as the main opposition party, putting clear blue water between itself and Sinn Féin.

This is eminently achievable. The circumstances of the meltdown in 2011 were unique. The party came through an electoral disaster. But even the low of 17.7pc of the vote should have given Fianna Fáil 29 seats with first preferences.

But of course, what happened was that voters who had not given their support to FG/Lab on the first count ultimately transferred to them, giving them an exceptionally high proportional vote bounce.

This time out, while one takes nothing for granted, I'd be surprised if FF doesn't garner at least 34 seats.

A short 21-day campaign means that the race will be frantic and the pitfalls and hidden trapdoors that no one had predicted will be plentiful.

It will be brutal and unforgiving, as there will be less time to recover lost ground. Policies will have to be finely tuned and finessed. In such a race, it comes down to the quick and the dead.

The story of our recovery from the worst recession since the war has been well told. Over the past five years, we repaired much of the damage and maintained many of the gains made in preceding years.

The manifestos and plans you will see in the coming days will be scrutinised and dissected. It is essential that investment is there for capital programmes and to underpin infrastructure for business, health, and education. Protecting and promoting jobs has to be paramount.

But there are plenty out there lobbying to make sure that these issues are prioritised.

An issue that was very dear to my own heart was the care of the disabled. There are some 600,000 people with disabilities in this country. When you factor in their friends and families, this constitutes a "sleeping giant" as they were recently described in this paper in terms of voting power.

During my terms as Taoiseach, I worked closely with the Disability Federation to tackle the huge problems that many are forced to struggle with.

Helping them is an unsung army of heroes comprised of 188,000 carers, most of whom are women. We sought to help them access services. Far too many disabled people are living in accommodation which has not been adapted for their needs.

There are unique issues for disabled children and quality of life can be compromised not because of inability but because of inequality, and I would hope that their cause would be taken up by candidates or parties. I certainly can think of no more deserving one.

Irish Independent

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