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Public looking for new blood, not great leaders

IN the past few weeks we have had a menage-a-trois, in both English and Gaeilge, as well as a five-way leaders' debate. But if we look at the UK, for the most part, these debates seem to have little impact on the public's attitude towards each party or their respective performances. So why have them? You may be forgiven for even asking why have a leader at all?

Much has been commented about Enda Kenny's poor personal ratings which, despite the woes of the governing Fianna Fail and its former leader Brian Cowen, have failed to improve substantially. Nonetheless, as we enter the final dash of this 100-metre race, Fine Gael is clearly getting the much-sought- after momentum which will very likely see it swept into power. Conversely, Eamon Gilmore's personal rating has been comparatively strong through last year's turbulent IMF period, but Labour's political 'Mo' appears now to be waning. With Enda's recent TV performances getting warmly critiqued by the media, his personal rating has improved markedly in this latest poll (up from 30 per cent to 41 per cent) and especially among party supporters where nearly three in four (71 per cent) now approve of him.

So has Enda's personal rating been behind Fine Gael's recent first preferences strengthening to 37 per cent? Looking at Eamon Gilmore and Labour you would have to say not necessarily. Eamon's personal rating continues to be the strongest of all leaders but support for his party appears to have lost momentum, slipping back to 20 per cent -- a far cry from last September's 35 per cent.

Our research shows in this election voters are far more interested in the national issues and party policies than local issues, as in 2007. Perhaps not surprising considering the state of the nation. But surely then having a strong frontman (or woman) who will lead us out of the recession is important? Not this time, seemingly for a number of reasons.

Ireland appears to have had its fill of leaders promising the Earth

and not delivering. You would have to say the world of politics is littered with broken election promises. Or even that over-promising is a prerequisite to gaining power in the first place, as reality is not always appetising. In fact, the world seems to be increasingly exasperated with its leaders, be they democratically elected or not. One huge change since the 2007 election is the rapid rise of social media and how this is putting power in the hands of the electorate. The 'Twitter Revolution' in Egypt is the ultimate example of how the message is now controlled by citizens and not by the state. Social media is bringing out the purest form of democracy where those who rule are answerable, literally by the minute.

Ireland has changed forever. Those who have brought us to where we are today are trusted less to take us forward. With Bertie not far behind us, and Brian Cowen taking the full force of the nation's anger, Ireland is looking for fresh blood -- step forward the next generation.

In fact, this is where some parties have been possibly gaining their advantage recently, either by design or default. Fine Gael has been pushing Leo Varadkar very

much to the fore, perhaps trying to compensate for Enda's personal weaknesses. Gerry Adams has stumbled badly a few times in recent weeks, and Pearse Doherty has become more prominent. Nationally, when you think of both Fine Gael and Sinn Fein, young, articulate, up-and-coming TDs or future leaders come to mind. For Labour they are less visible or well known nationally, even though Ivana Bacik, in Dun Laoghaire, is clearly in this category.

So a strong figurehead, confidently leading from the front, may not be the advantage it was in past elections. And Eamon Gilmore's personal rating may not be the advantage we all assumed it to be.

In this new age, where there is distrust of leaders' rhetoric, dislike of the 'old guard' and the recent stark focus in Egypt on citizens' democratic strength, pushing a team forward, especially of new young talent, might be the more acceptable face for a party with its eye on the seat of power.

The electorate is well aware of its newfound digital power. Entering the final week of hand-shaking, the message for each party leader might be to push your team forward as the fresh alternative that Ireland is now hungry for. At 37 per cent, Fine Gael will need a very strong performance next week to get over the line on Friday solo, but it is now certainly within credible reach.

Richard Waring is CEO of Millward Brown Lansdowne

Sunday Independent