Saturday 20 January 2018

Political anoraks have their day in the sun as leadership battle reveals shifting voter landscape

Simon Coveney TD Picture: Tom Burke
Simon Coveney TD Picture: Tom Burke
John Downing

John Downing

It is easy to write off this Varadkar versus Coveney tilt as the battle of Tweedledum and Tweedlee, with little of substance riding on the outcome for many beyond Fine Gael zealots and political anoraks.

But that it to miss a key point about what is potentially happening to the Irish political party structures over these days. True, in the immediate term, whether it's Mr Varadkar or Mr Coveney who gets to lead Fine Gael and become the next taoiseach, will change little in our day-to-day lives.

But over a relatively short time we may see a lot more change in the way we order our affairs.

For the past eight days we have seen Mr Coveney revive his leadership chances in part by arguing that Fine Gael must stick with the middle ground, inclining ever so slightly to the left, but trying to remain a catch-all party appealing to everyone.

"Do we want to be a party that targets a core support base? Or, do we want to be a party that represents everybody in this country? That is the choice.

"That is where in my view, two good candidates have a different perspective," he said.

For his part Mr Varadkar accused Mr Coveney of trying to characterise the race as left-wing versus right-wing.

Read More: A rumble in Rathgar: forget Leo and Simon - Eoghan and Kate is the real feud in FG

He argued that the Housing Minister's efforts to be a "catch all" candidate meant he wanted to represent "everyone in such a way that we represent nobody".

The Social Protection Minister said this was "the Fianna Fáil way" of doing politics. "We should not try to be all things to all people. Do that and we end up being nothing to anyone," he said.

It was interesting to hear Mr Varadkar cite Fianna Fáil in all this. It was the one which most successfully, over 80-plus years of existence, managed to be all things to all people. From the outset in 1926, it insisted it constructed a "political movement" rather than a political party. It managed to represent ordinary workers, small farmers and increasingly big business operators, especially in construction.

When it hit that gigantic political rock in 2011, and sank to 21 TDs and 17pc of the vote, part of the cause was it was no longer possible to be all things to all people. In this second decade of the 21st Century, people in Ireland and across the western world are very sceptical of politicians.

If may over time be possible to regain the confidence of a great mass of people. But right now that looks extremely unlikely in a fragmented party structure, the fast disappearance of traditional loyalties, and a rapidly changing Irish political landscape.

Fianna Fáil was often able to muster up to 50pc of the national vote at various high points up to 40 years ago, and was above 40pc up to a decade ago. These days the party must content itself with having the support of one in four voters, and hoping that on a good day, it can perhaps garner around one in three.

The 'Irish Times' Ipsos MRBI poll yesterday showed Fine Gael now on 30pc, in part surely thanks to the exposure this leadership contest has generated. Fianna Fáil is on 27pc.

Read More: Coveney and Varadkar put their pitches to rural voters

Those two figures tell us that the struggle between these two "big beasts" will be the heart of the battle in the next election. It is hard to conceive of durable government without one or other of them - and it may, as we previously noted, require both.

With that in mind, Leo Varadkar's take on things - appealing directly and mainly to the "coping classes of middle Ireland" - may be the more honest and realistic plan. It does not suggest his party should ignore other sections of the community - much less actively offend them.

Mr Coveney's insistence that his party can and must represent everyone appears more idealistic - but also unfeasible. He harks back to a "Just Society" policy, which is 50 years old and was never accepted by half his party, much less the broad sweep of voters. But is Mr Varadkar's approach any easier to implement? It certainly poses many challenges because the "coping classes" are far from being a single grouping with a communality of interests.

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Many of them are young, suburban and deeply disillusioned by mainstream politics. Getting this group to listen would be a job in itself, getting their confidence may be too much of a stretch.

Fine Gael activists and loyal supporters will wonder whether Mr Varadkar is at risk of dragging Fine Gael into a right-wing rut. Against that, they will ponder whether Mr Coveney can really make Fine Gael a catch-all party.

Overall, the future of our political party structures, in a very fragmented and fast-changing Irish political landscape, is now called into question.

Fine Gael parliamentary party endorsements for leader

The Fine Gael parliamentary party makes up 65pc of the total electorate.

That makes each of the 73 members' votes worth 0.9pc of the total ballot.

Of the remaining electorate, 230 party councillors account for 10pc, while the remaining 25pc is rank and file members.

Leo Varadkar
Simon Coveney

Total: 45

Total: 19

Ministers: 17

Ministers: 5

TDs: 16

TDs: 5

Senators: 11

Senators: 8

MEPs: 1

MEPs: 1

Richard Bruton -MinisterSimon Harris - Minister
Frances Fitzgerald - MinisterDamien English - Minister
Michael Ring - MinisterDara Murphy - Minister
Eoghan Murphy - MinisterDavid Stanton - Minister
Sean Kyne - MinisterMarcella Corcoran Kennedy - Minister
Joe McHugh - MinisterKate O'Connell - TD
Helen McEntee - MinisterMaria Bailey - TD
Charlie Flanagan - MinisterSean Barrett TD
Paul Kehoe -MinisterHildegard Naughton - TD
Patrick O'Donovan - MinisterPeter Fitzpatrick - TD
Regina Doherty - MinisterTim Lombard - Senator
Mary Mitchell O'Connor - MinisterJerry Buttimer - Senator
Paschal Donohoe - MinisterPaudie Coffey - Senator
Heather Humphreys - MinisterJames Reilly - Senator
Pat Breen - MinisterColm Burke - Senator
Catherine Byrne - MinisterJohn O'Mahony - Senator
Andrew Doyle - MinisterPaul Coghlan - Senator
John Paul Phelan - TDGabrielle McFadden - Senator
Noel Rock - TDDeirdre Clune - MEP
Tony McLoughlin - TD 
Alan Farrell - TD 
Michael D'Arcy - TD 
Tom Neville - TD 
Josepha Madigan - TD 
Pat Deering - TD 
Jim Daly - TD 
Brendan Griffin - TD 
Ciaran Cannon - TD 
Colm Brophy - TD 
Peter Burke - TD 
Fergus O'Dowd - TD 
John Deasy - TD 
Joe Carey - TD 
Neale Richmond - Senator 
Catherine Noone - Senator 
Paddy Burke - Senator 
Martin Conway - Senator 
Michelle Mulherin - Senator 
Maura Hopkins - Senator 
Ray Butler - Senator 
Frank Feighan - Senator 
Maria Byrne - Senator 
Joe O'Reilly - Senator 
Kieran O'Donnell - Senator 
Brian Hayes - MEP 
Undeclared
Enda Kenny - Outgoing Party Leader *Martin Heydon - Party Chairman *
Michael Noonan - MinisterMichael Creed - Minister
Bernard Durkan - TDSean Kelly - MEP
Mairead McGuinness MEP  

* Outgoing leader Enda Kenny and party chairman Martin Heydon will not make an endorsement

Irish Independent

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