Monday 20 November 2017

Ronan Fanning: This election is about who'll lead the Opposition, not who'll lead the country

With the possibility of Sinn Fein becoming the largest Opposition party, voters' second preferences should go to FF, writes Ronan Fanning

Gerry Adams
Gerry Adams

Ronan Fanning

This election is different from any previous election since 1927. Never since then has there been an election in which Fianna Fail, the natural governing party from 1932 until 2011, was not campaigning with a realistic prospect of forming the next government.

It is also different because Enda Kenny has a much greater chance of doing what no leader of Fine Gael has ever done before: winning a second consecutive term as Taoiseach. His odds with Paddy Power to be the next Taoiseach are already shorter that the hottest Willie Mullins' odds on favourite at Cheltenham: a prohibitive 1/18. The downside of such a positive statistic for Fine Gael is that voters do not like being told, in effect, that there is no alternative Taoiseach on offer and that this may feed the momentum of the "Put Him Out" campaign even if the consequence is a chaotic inability to form a government when the Dáil next meets on March 10. Last week's Irish Times/MRBI poll showing that 63pc of respondents would like to see a change of government as opposed to the 30pc who would like to see the present government returned points in the same direction.

In this sense there is some resemblance to the 1948 election when all the opposition parties coalesced in a campaign to "Put Him Out" as Eamon de Valera sought again to renew his mandate after 16 years in office. Yet, even in this case, the differences are more striking than the similarities because de Valera had by then won six general elections in succession.

But the most striking mark of difference in this election is that its defining characteristic is that it is not so much an election about who is to become Taoiseach, as about who will lead the opposition. So much became immediately apparent from the brief interviews offered to each party leader on RTE's early evening news on the first day of the campaign.

Enda Kenny was notable for his absence and Fine Gael was represented by Leo Varadkar, looking every inch a Taoiseach-in-waiting fit for any international stage in three shades of Tory blue. His message was as simple as it was predictable: the central issue was who could be trusted to keep the recovery going. Enda Kenny's absence inevitably incurred immediate criticism not just from political opponents accusing him of running scared, but from an irritated media.

What appeared to be the Taoiseach's strategy of invisibility on all but the most carefully stage-managed occasions threatened to become electorally damaging even in the course of such a short election campaign. But his first major interview of the campaign on Friday's edition of Morning Ireland suggests that he is alert to this danger and that such an episode will not recur.

Micheál Martin and Gerry Adams both used their interviews on the first day of the campaign to pose as standard-bearers of change. Mr Martin, when asked what a vote for Fianna Fail meant if it was not a vote for a Fianna Fail Taoiseach, said it was "a vote for change". Given his party's role and indeed his own senior ministerial role in the governments in power during the crash, that formula offers an obvious hostage to fortune as his opponents can readily dismiss the proposition that Fianna Fáil would be more competent than the present government in keeping the economic recovery on track and cleaning up in the aftermath of the recession, which their opponents will keep accusing them of having created.

Gerry Adams painted change in terms of a vote for Sinn Fein being a "vote for fairness and decency" - not the first words that spring to mind when one thinks of Sinn Fein - but Mr Adams is oblivious to irony. Asked why the electorate should vote for a party untried in the business of government, he, too, gave a hostage to fortune with his claim that they had been tried and tested in the north. That may carry some resonance among republicans in his Louth constituency and in other border counties, but if Mr Adams believes that the template of Northern Ireland government is going to impress voters in this state as in any sense worthy of imitation, he is mistaken.

It is an early example of how Mr Adams's Belfast baggage will be an electoral liability. Another is the now notorious praise he lavished on Thomas "Slab" Murphy as "a good republican". Mr Adams's querulous complaints that "Slab" Murphy is not a candidate in his election are in vain and his spectre will continue to haunt Sinn Fein throughout the campaign.

The most recent opinion polls suggest that, barring a major shift before polling day, Fine Gael and Labour will at best fall short of winning enough seats to form a government but may have to seek support from like-minded Independents. The worst-case scenario for voters seeking stability and a continuance of the economic recovery is that Sinn Fein will become the largest opposition party and might be able to form a government with the support of those left-leaning Independents who have no ideological objections to serving in a Sinn Fein-led government.

That this is an election in which the key issue is the leadership of the Opposition explains why such voters who give their first preferences to Fine Gael or to Labour should unhesitatingly give their next preferences to Fianna Fáil. The last Fianna Fáil Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, when launching my biography of Eamon de Valera last October, spoke of the need for a dispassionate approach to the Treaty split and the civil war. It was time, he said, for all parties to take what he described as "an ecumenical attitude" to the events of 1921-22. This is the moment when Fianna Fail and Fine Gael voters alike have a chance to practise what Mr Cowen preached. If they seize the moment, the sterility of a party system that has scarred and debased Irish politics for almost a century will finally be dead and buried and the 2016 election will prove truly historic.

Ronan Fanning is Professor Emeritus of Modern History at University College Dublin

Sunday Independent

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