Tuesday 18 June 2019

Gene Kerrigan: Enda clings on, while Leo and Simon try on various costumes to impress the punters

The times are dangerous, but the leading political parties play the same old games, writes Gene Kerrigan

Illustration by Tom Halliday
Illustration by Tom Halliday
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

These days, to be an intelligent supporter of Fine Gael is to experience a high degree of embarrassment. The level of political competence, whether among the old heads or the new, ranges from the comic to the farcical.

(We'll get to their Fianna Fail partners in a minute.)

This time last year, the media rushed to help brush the Noonan follies under the budgetary carpet.

Michael Noonan produced budget figures that showed he had a €12bn "fiscal space" in which to juggle taxing and spending.

You will, of course, have noticed that the media usually attach some qualifier to the term "fiscal space". They say it's "so-called" or "to use the buzz words", or "the dreaded", or something like that. The qualifier is used because some reporters are uneasy pretending this is a valid economic term, rather than an element in a political manoeuvre.

That, however, is for another day.

Mr Noonan happily frolicked in his €12bn "fiscal space" - Ooooh, he warbled, I might do this and I might do that - until Pearse Doherty totted up the figures, declared them dodgy and had his reckoning validated.

It resulted in an embarrassment factor not reached since the days when Fine Gael's early leaders had trouble keeping their right arms from shooting up to a 45-degree angle.

Not alone were the figures dodgy, but they had been rumbled by a Shinner. And that was beyond embarrassing. The standard line from FG and FF, Labour and the bulk of the media has been that anyone to the left of Joan Burton is, by definition, economically illiterate.

And all of the above - and all their experts and consultants and "advisers" - had accepted Noonan's figures as valid. Because everyone knows that in Noonan we have a Minister of Finance of stupendous acumen. (And, the media adds, with a simper, he's "wily".)

Which is why the scandal was hurriedly buried. It was difficult to question Noonan's competence without admitting that no one but Doherty noticed.

The myths of Noonan's economic acumen and Enda Kenny's political skill persisted long enough to ensure a disastrous election, as FG and Labour claimed to have engineered a full-blown recovery.

The country had been thrashed by years of foolish, needless austerity, with cuts deepening the social crisis, with the health system worsening by the day, with food banks and record levels of homelessness. In the name of economic stability, the country was socially destabilised. Anger has accumulated - along with wage demands.

Many are today seen to be thriving, while the effects of income cuts linger for most.

And here's Noonan again, a year later. Ooooh, he warbles, I might do this and I might do that. . .

Someone take him away, please, he's dribbling on the fiscal carpet.

With a bunch of old geezers in charge, FG began commissioning internal reports on how the party might renew itself.

Last week saw the emergence of two such reports. For now, we'll deal with the report titled 'Pathways and Opportunities'. It was produced by a team of five younger TDs and one senator. This is the view of the generation that hopes to make the party relevant in these dangerous times.

The report is a 13-page product of six weeks' intense interviewing and view-seeking among 400 members and supporters. Mostly it's made up of wholesome suggestions about making ministers more accessible, TDs more "relatable" and lots of mingling and bonding, so that members will feel part of the "Fine Gael family". Juvenile nonsense, with a few common-sense organisational reforms. Not a political thought in sight.

Not a single word either questions or attempts to justify the kiss-up, kick-down policies of austerity.

There's no assessment of the knee-jerk right-wing measures that render increasing numbers homeless and leave elderly people dying on trolleys - and which alienate voters. Nothing to say about the rigid system of diktat that resulted in the ejection of capable right-wingers such as Lucinda Creighton.

On page five, as part of the touchy-feely blether, the report says: "Focus groups should be made up of party members and supporters, not paid commercial groups."

That one sentence raises questions about the basic competence of the authors of the report.

The parties spend a fortune (paid by us) on market research. They commission polls; they pay for focus groups. The purpose is to find out what voters might find attractive and what they find objectionable.

Focus groups are made up of panels of broadly representative individuals, selected by professional market researchers. Using extensive questioning of the panels, the party tries out policies, tactics, and slogans. That which the focus group finds attractive is adopted; that which is rejected is discarded.

The whole point of the marketing exercise is to test possibilities on non-party subjects. Focus groups are a contentious expense, but to replace representative panels with party members defeats the purpose.

It's surprising that such a basic element of modern party organisation seems unknown to a bunch of TDs.

Or is this a startling innovation in market research - "Let's try out the policies and slogans on ourselves and see what we think"?

Meanwhile, Enda clings on. And the young bucks, Leo and Simon, shimmy up and down the party catwalk, trying on various costumes to impress the punters. Leo, we're told, is treating members to pizza and beer; he grabs headlines with remarks on things outside his brief - the bus strike, FF and the Budget. He turns up at Electric Picnic one day and gets photographed swallowing oysters in Galway the next. He trolls the unemployed with warnings about dole fraud. He knows dole fraud is not a problem - but smearing the unemployed impresses the party members.

And here's Simon, finalising plans to increase payments to councillors, along with increases in unvouched expenses.

And Frances, nine months older than Enda, stands by in case the party feels it's in trouble because it's already being led by a wild, young thing.

As FG supporters ponder who's worse, their old geezer leaders or their young geezer would-be leaders, FF licks its lips.

The party of Ahern and Cowen hopes to capitalise on all this by appearing to offer hope and competence. The image they're trying for is one that admits they may have run the economy off a cliff, but unlike the blueshirts they're not self-deluding eejits.

Trouble is, everyone knows FF will say anything to get into office.

They set up Irish Water. They're wholeheartedly in favour of water charges.

Then, an election arrives and they promise to abolish water charges. After the election, coming to an arrangement with FG, they say what they really meant was they'd suspend water charges, for a while.

Now, as voters clearly want an end to the Irish Water mess, FF announce they're again for the abolition of water charges.

Happily, the Shinners have a Dail motion on that very thing. But voting for that would legitimise the opposition credentials of someone other than the old firm, FF&FG Ltd.

So, FF intends to join FG in voting to keep water charges.

Not to worry, they'll be against water charges again, until it's more useful to be for them.

The party you can trust as far as you can throw Michael Noonan.

Sunday Independent

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