Saturday 7 December 2019

Gene Kerrigan: Let's end the foreplay and get on with it

Whoever we elect may become as irrelevant as those who won the 2007 election, writes Gene Kerrigan

Illustration by Tom Halliday
Illustration by Tom Halliday
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

You've probably avoided reading any of that stuff in the business pages about the faltering Chinese economy. And about the falling price of oil. Quite right. Me too.

Nothing I can do about any of it, so I just don't want to know.

The global economy is like something from one of those old disaster movies. Everyone is going about their business and suddenly someone notices that a glass of water on the table has started trembling. That's the equivalent of the stories currently worrying the business pages.

In those old movies, pretty soon people are pinned to the floor by falling chunks of ceiling and the whole building collapses in a spectacularly unconvincing series of 1980s special effects.

Don't look at the shivering glass of water - and maybe the roof won't cave in, that's my philosophy.

If you think this is a wilful disregard of reality, you'd be right. But it's how the country is being run. Hell, since 2008 it's how the world has been run.

We have the added distraction of the impending General Election.

Never in the history of Irish politics has an election been prefaced by such lengthy foreplay. When the big bang arrives it should be an almighty eruption.

Or, perhaps, a rather pathetic disappointment.

Enda almost brought the whole thing to a climax in November Then, he giggled and we realised he and Joan had been just teasing us.

The posters are up, the canvassing has started, the election litter has been pouring through my letterbox - but Enda continues to refuse to tell us when the election is going to be.

"I have a date in my head", he coyly told us last week, like a babysitter playing games with a child.

He said he'll share the date with us when he's good and ready. And he'll do so, he said, teasing us again, "in a very public fashion".

Sounds like he's intending to blurt out the election date while doing a striptease in Clerys window.

It really is past time to abolish this nonsense. There's no need for any of it. The timing of a general election should be set in law, not a matter for the whim of some terminally indecisive politician.

Still, it passes the time while we're waiting for the ceiling to cave in.

Last week, to help keep us busy, politicians and the media staged a little piece of nonsense, just for the fun of it.

You may remember the famous poster in which Enda stared out at us, a look of intense commitment on his face, with the slogan: "I will end the scandal of patients on trolleys".

Not "we will", not "Fine Gael will". He said, "I will".

No one, as far as I know, asked him to give this personal commitment, but he gave it. You will not be surprised to learn that for all of the five years he's been our Supreme Leader, Mr Kenny has done exactly nothing about ending the scandal of patients on trolleys.

So, last week, Fianna Fail rigged up a poster on the back of a lorry, with the same snap of Enda, the same look of intense commitment on his face, and the slogan: "I won't end the scandal of patients lying on trolleys".

This was followed by "Tax cuts for the wealthiest come first".

Immediately, the gathered legions of the media pronounced this to be "negative campaigning", and the stunt backfired on Fianna Fail.

Oh dear, complained Fine Gael, they're being negative.

Tut-tut, said the media. Learned correspondents wrote think-pieces about it and TV journalists interviewed one another about the whys and wherefores of this dreadful negativity.

Fianna Fail had to explain that the poster wasn't negative. Then they said it was negative, but that it worked.

Right, so.

This is the new rule for electioneering, is it? No one should say anything negative about anyone else? You're not allowed to criticise anything your opponent did or didn't do, or is promising to do or not do. You should merely, in a totally positive manner, put forward your own policies.

Well, we'll see how long that lasts.

Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I don't see what's wrong with adopting a negative attitude to your opponent, as long as you don't lie. And the Fianna Fail poster didn't lie.

There's nothing wrong with pointing out that we're still suffering from the health cuts of an era in which a Fine Gael government closed hundreds of beds.

(Mind you, it's bit cheeky to omit the fact that Fianna Fail sought a mandate to end this vandalism, got elected and then closed thousands of beds.)

What matters, surely, is not the negativity of the message, but the truth.

The only reason to complain about attack campaigns is when they lie. Is it really our job in the media to protect the politicians from unfair attacks? Aren't they quite capable of doing that themselves? Our job, surely, is to protect the voters from being fooled by lies? Surely our job is not to wag our fingers at "negative campaigning" but to point out when politicians are trying to mislead the voters?

Which raises a peculiar matter. Last week, the media agreed that by putting Enda on a poster Fianna Fail had "started the negative campaigning".

Now, for some time, Fine Gael has been running online attacks on Sinn Fein, which is fair enough. Except, one of them very deliberately quotes Mary Lou McDonald out of context - about how the Shinners will raise taxes.

By carefully excluding the context, Fine Gael created a statement McDonald didn't make. A deliberate effort to mislead voters. And they've been repeatedly using this - long before Fianna Fail brought out its Enda poster.

For whatever reason, this is not seen by the media as negative campaigning. I could speculate why that might be, and so could you.

It's easy to mislead. Here's something I've just made up about Enda Kenny.

Speaking in the Dail last month, the Taoiseach made a devastating admission. "We have no plan, no vision," he confessed.

Now, Enda Kenny did say this. In context, however, he was saying that an opponent said he had no plan, no vision. "He says we have no plan, no vision, but . . ."

If it's wrong to do this to Enda Kenny - and it is - then, it's wrong to do it to anyone. Yet, Fine Gael, after five years in office, with an election fund of millions of euros, with the advantage of incumbency and with a strong lead in the polls, feels the necessity to mislead voters.

And believes itself entitled to do so.

Earlier this year, Fine Gael handlers consulted with the media people who advised the Tory party in its successful election campaign. We can, therefore, expect increased use of Twitter, Facebook, Vine and all the other platforms. Teams of sock puppets will also hover around the comment sections of various media outlets, seeking to damage opponents and to discredit valid criticism of the party.

No doubt, other parties will have similar teams at work.

Given the reality of how this election will be fought, and the blatant deceit that the biggest party has already engaged in, the Fianna Fail poster is a quaint effort from another era.

That glass of water is still trembling. In the real world, some of the tides that pushed the Irish economy into recovery are ebbing. If you read the economists you'll notice they're worried, but they're at a loss to interpret how this will play out.

Against that background, it's not just the Fianna Fail poster that's outdated. Whatever form of Fine Gael-led government is returned, it may well become as irrelevant as the government that won the general election of 2007.

The important result will be the size of the parliamentary resistance.

Sunday Independent

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