Thursday 26 April 2018

Rural revolt: Sweet revenge in the forgotten heartlands

Enda Kenny thought he could win the election urging voters to "keep the recovery going". But in a journey through rural Ireland, still reeling from the recession, Kim Bielenberg and Graham Clifford found the ­Dublin 4-inspired slogan prompted a massive backlash

Slogan light: 'Viking Mike' McDonnell by his boat in Athlone, Co Westmeath Photo: James Flynn/APX.
Slogan light: 'Viking Mike' McDonnell by his boat in Athlone, Co Westmeath Photo: James Flynn/APX.
A poster in a tree during the election in Listowel, Co Kerry
Looking to the future: Aisling and Fergal Cormican in their art and stationery shop, Cormicans in Roscommon. Photo: James Flynn/APX

Next to his boat by the banks of the Shannon, 'Viking Mike' McDonnell ponders, with incredulity, the slogan used by Enda Kenny in his election campaign: "Let's keep the recovery going."

In the annals of political electioneering, the rallying call to voters will surely go down as one of the great flops of all time.

In the heart of middle Ireland, Viking Mike takes people from all over the country on short boat trips along the river and is amazed Enda and his handlers could be so out of touch with public sentiment.

"This so-called recovery is very fragmented," says the Athlone boatman. "Is it really happening? It depends on what part of the country you're in and what business you're at. My business was down 30pc last year."

Viking Mike likens the slogan urging voters to "keep the recovery going" to the notorious marketing campaign for Guinness Light back in the Seventies - when the brewers tried to flog a watery version of our favourite stout brand.

"You have to laugh at these fellas - where do they get their ideas from?" says McDonnell.

"I can understand that politicians are aloof, particularly at cabinet level - but you would assume their handlers, spin doctors and consultants would be operating at the same level as you and me. I don't understand how they got it so wrong."

Few would argue there has not been some sort of economic turnaround across many parts of the country since 2011, with unemployment falling and debt levels decreasing.

The tone of the Fine Gael campaign seems to have worked in some of the more prosperous parts of Dublin.

In the Dún Laoghaire constituency, containing such wealthy areas as Dalkey and Killiney, Enda Kenny's party now has three out of four seats. In Dublin Bay South, containing Dublin 4, they won two seats. But mandarins in Fine Gael's central office should have known that across vast swathes of the country, particularly beyond the Pale, recovery is, at best, modest and, at worst, non-existent.

Across many parts of the midlands into the west, along the border and in Munster, Fine Gael has been hammered by voters, who have not felt the recovery to any great extent, and may even have been offended by the slogan. As soon as the boxes were opened a week later, count centres turned into Blueshirt blood baths.

As he went through the torturous counting in Longford-Westmeath that ultimately resulted in Fine Gael going from three seats to one seat, losing TD James Bannon complained that his party's election slogan was totally out of sync with what was happening in the midlands.

He had told several ministers about this to no avail.

Bannon's concerns that the slogan was falling flat on the doorstep were echoed by other grassroots party workers at an early stage. Their calls to the officials inside the Dublin party bubble to change course fell on deaf ears.

It was not just the slogan itself that seemed to irk the electorate. It was also the way it was parroted by Enda Kenny and his ministers in a way that seemed to insult the intelligence of voters.

"It became very boring," said Joan Higgins in her clothes shop, Jezebelle, in Athlone. "Enda just spewed it out."

Like 7,585 others in the constituency of Longford-Westmeath, Viking Mike McDonnell decided to vote for the Independent, Kevin 'Boxer' Moran, who was rewarded for his heroic work trying to save Athlone from the floods with a seat in the Dáil.

During the winter flooding emergency, Boxer was an ever-present figure on the banks of the Shannon, manning the pumps and organising sandbags. Many local voters that you talk to in the Shannon region express anger that Kenny took many days to react to the floods, and only appeared fleetingly on the scene.

The aftermath of the floods in many parts of the country made talk of a recovery singularly inappropriate. But the Fine Gael handlers did not want to change a template, approved by focus groups.

"For the first time in an election, I voted non-party, because I am fed up with the party system," says Viking Mike. This is a sentiment that is heard time and time again. By simply rehashing a party line, many politicians debased their own currency.

In the Singer sewing and haberdashery shop in the centre of Athlone, Joan Egan was unimpressed by the notion of a recovery and thinks the slogan was a scam.

Just as Fine Gael was unveiling its pitch for the hearts and minds of middle Ireland, three shops were closing in the centre of Athlone.

"Where did they test it out - in the Dáil bar?" says Joan.

She also voted Independent: "I vote for an individual I can trust. It's not a matter of voting for a party any more."

If anger at the Government was obvious in Longford and Westmeath, it is even more pronounced as you head west across the Shannon into the Roscommon constituency which takes in parts of east Galway.

In 2011, Fine Gael won two seats, but this time out it drew a complete blank as voters again defected to Independents - Michael Fitzmaurice and Denis Naughten (who was previously FG but fell out with the party over the scaling down of the local hospital).

If there is any recovery here, it is modest and many of the local towns - including Boyle and Castlerea - bear scars of recession that are slow to heal. As the county town, Roscommon town fares slightly better, but it lacks any big employer to keep young people working in the area.

"It's great the recovery is happening in Dublin and other cities, but it hasn't filtered down the country - as far as industry and jobs," says Roscommon Independent councillor Kathleen Shanagher.

In the western region overall, it is hardly surprising the slogan dreamt up by the party apparatchiks rings particularly hollow. By the end of last year, employment levels were still 15pc below the peak in the Celtic Tiger years.

Again, the flooding issue is raised and in recent weeks dampened the sense of recovery.

"Jobs and health are the big issues here," says Kathleen.

"Young people are going off to college to be educated, but they are not coming back."

In La Trattoria café on Main Street, Anne Casey says: "I think there's a feeling Enda Kenny hasn't really helped the west of Ireland."

The downgrading of the local hospital heightened a sense of distrust and betrayal. In the 2011 election, Kenny pledged to protect the local A&E unit, but within months his Government had closed it.

There may have been sound medical reasons for the closure, but voters waited until last week to take their revenge at the ballot box. Brother and sister Fergal and Aisling Cormican, who run a school book and art supplies business in Roscommon, give Fine Gael some credit for dealing with a difficult hand when they came in, but they say they are not party political. "I would say the Government were fair to middling," says Fergal. "But there was a certain smugness about the slogan. My brother lives in South County Dublin and he cycles to work past where all the Google workers live. It must look pretty good there. There is a very slow recovery here, but it is only slight."

If the electorate was not feeling full of the joys of spring in Roscommon and elsewhere, it is not surprising given the punishment voters have taken. Fergal believes the slogan may have come one election too soon for most people.

In the mart in Roscommon Town, manager Maura Quigley says: "I don't think people are feeling the recovery because they have to pay so much extra in charges - there's water charges, Universal Social Charge and property tax.

"Every time you turned around there was a new charge - and it was all left down to the people who were working."

In setting the tone of their campaign, Fine Gael seem to have to made a massive tactical blunder.

In order to stay in government, parties have to appeal to the broad mass of the electorate. In its pomp, Fianna Fáil hoovered up votes from all classes, and they showed signs of doing that again this time.

Fine Gael, by contrast, made a narrow pitch for a certain section of the middle classes with promises of tax cuts - and less emphasis on improved services.

The attempt to conjure up a feelgood factor of recovery among the coping classes, aping the methodology of the British Conservative Party at last year's election, seems to have been a failure. And in many cases, the feelgood emotion just wasn't there. Nobody captured this mood more eloquently than Marie Hanna Curran, a letter writer to the Irish Independent from Ballinasloe, Co Galway.

As she put it in a letter to the editor this week: "The majority of working people in Ireland are struggling to provide for their families: people who leave their homes early in the morning and return late in the evening, having worked and paid taxes, are finishing each month one pay cheque from being broke."

The figures for growth and tax revenue may look good on spreadsheets, but in too many cases the recession was so bruising that beckoning voters to continue their recovery was far too premature. And many Fine Gael TDs now know this weekend how it feels to be unemployed as a result.

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