Wednesday 26 October 2016

How FG could win and FF lose next time

'Think-ins' show empathy and humility will be key when election time comes around, writes Jody Corcoran

Published 25/09/2016 | 02:30

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin. Photo: Gerry Mooney

The comedian George Burns once said: "Sincerity - if you can fake that, you've got it made." I was reminded of that quote when I read a recent report into the failure of Fine Gael's general election campaign. These days Fianna Fail would also do well to bear in mind the general concept. In the case of Fine Gael you can substitute the word 'sincerity' with 'empathy', and in Fianna Fail's case 'humility'.

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The recommendations from the report carried out by Marion Coy, a former head of the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, were presented to the recent Fine Gael parliamentary party at its think-in.

The report concluded that Fine Gael's election campaign failed in a range of areas, including vision, planning, communication and - one word jumped out - empathy.

Since the election, Fine Gael has been heavily emphasising the requirement for empathy. For example, the former Cork South Central TD Jerry Buttimer said after the election Fine Gael "failed to show their empathy and compassion"; while a Young Fine Gael conference focused on the theme 'empathy, equality and economy'.

Now, empathy is something of a paradox: as a philosopher somewhere must have asked - could someone understand the word 'pain', who had never felt pain? I do not believe any or many within Fine Gael, or among their supporters, really - really - felt the pain of austerity, for example. Therefore, there can be a dark side to empathy, best understood by narcissists, Machiavellians, and sociopaths everywhere. That is not to say that Jerry Buttimer or Young Fine Gael or anybody in Fine Gael necessarily bears any or all of those traits. But I would also say the party is still struggling to 'feel into' - let us not say 'mood' - the 'emotion' of the nation.

To put it another way, in the era of Fine Gael's laudable Just Society, the party seemed to better understand the pro-social attitudes and behaviour of the country. Perhaps that is the route Fine Gael's new leadership will eventually assume, if there is time. Who knows? If it does, there will be much for Fianna Fail to worry about. In Fianna Fail these days there is another kind of assumption at play, or so it would increasingly seem. This assumption is the party has been forgiven for all of the wrongs of the past, justly and unjustly heaped upon its head. This assumption is projected forward in the media, which now assumes Micheal Martin will be the next Taoiseach and Fianna Fail will lead the next government. It is my view Micheal Martin does not share this assumption. I certainly do not. Micheal Martin's humility seems genuine. As a member of the last three Fianna Fail cabinets, he has reason to be. Do I believe he is faking humility? No. He is the man who saved Fianna Fail, after all. Now, there is a debate as to whether humility is a virtue or not; but virtue or not, everyone must agree there is nothing more rare. In the last few years Fianna Fail has had much cause to show humility. However, in the last few weeks and months, the party, or rather several of its leading politicians, have shown less humility than, in my view, they should continue to not just show but to also feel. This trait has not yet quite manifested itself into the arrogance, indeed hubris of old, but it is starting to show worrying signs of the potential to do so.

At the Fianna Fail think-in last week, Micheal Martin referred to the "collective wisdom" being wrong about the party before its success in the election this year. "The many thousands of members and supporters of our party who helped achieve this great result did it in the face of mountains of complacent commentary," he said. This collective wisdom was wrong, he said, because it spent its time focused on political events and flawed polling and ignored the substance of the views and experiences of the Irish people. By and large, the Fianna Fail leader is correct in his assessment, although it would depend on which polling firm and commentator you followed.

That said, I would also add the Fianna Fail leadership in general was also (almost) as surprised as many of the complacent commentary at the relative success it had in the election. But the level of surprise is not necessarily the point: the point is, Fianna Fail's success was relative only to its worst ever election result. To put it another way, in that election the party achieved its second worst ever election result. Therefore, in the views and experiences of Irish people, there is still cause for humility in Fianna Fail. The party's new generation of politicians, including several on the frontbench who should know better, should realise this, lest they be faulted for the same fault Micheal Martin has applied to the complacent commentary. Instead of doing that, they are starting to stand, walk, and even strut again like they are government ministers in waiting.

Now, as I have said there is a debate as to whether humility is a virtue. Nietzsche viewed it as a strategy used by the weak to avoid being destroyed by the strong. Fianna Fail was weaker then than it is now, but it is still weak. Perhaps this perceptible change in Fianna Fail is as it should be, that the party would be better to roam around unfettered by pretensions of humility and proud of its history, stature and power on the whole, but should not revel in it, and certainly not display hubris.

Fianna Fail would be far better to reveal its own ignorance in the hope of genuinely siding with humility against arrogance. Equally, it would be wrong, or at least a futile pursuit, that is, it would be without empathy to conclude genuine empathy is not possible or does not exist in Fine Gael. Of course it does.

The outcome of the next election, next year, is far from a foregone conclusion.

Sunday Independent

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