Wednesday 13 November 2019

The man with a neck of cold blue steel

Effort to manipulate our next general election is already well under way, says Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

It's been the kind of week that gives relief to unpopular politicians. Dreadful events in Paris grabbed our attention - so much so that even the continuing chaos in our hospitals was driven off the front pages.

And Enda Kenny made the most of the opportunity.

Even as the rest of us awaited the outcome of those dreadful events, Enda was moving to protect himself from the consequences of four years of taking money from the sick and the hardworking and handing it to bondholders.

Compared to the hardness of our own dear Taoiseach's neck, the nether regions of a jockey are as soft as an angel's kiss. Sometimes, despite all the reasons we have to despair of him, you have to gasp with admiration at Mr Kenny's sheer audacity.

Say what you like about him - and we will, we will - Enda won't allow himself to be stifled by matters of custom, political etiquette or democratic accountability. He's a free spirit, absolutely convinced of his own virtue, capable of pulling desperate strokes while assuring himself he's acting courageously in the interests of the nation.

And last week he proved that, not once but twice.

The general election will be held sometime between next month and April 2016. Here's how political parties game the system these days.

The Taoiseach of the day doesn't officially call an election until the last minute. For months, the parties are out, canvassing, leafleting, working the media. They spend a fortune on posters and other electoral aids, they rent election offices and book outdoor poster sites.

Even more money is spent on secret polls. You know those companies that run polls for newspapers and RTE? Do you think they spend the rest of the year twiddling their thumbs, waiting for a call from us?

They work for businesses that want to try new products, companies that want to test wider markets, companies that need to know how they're seen by their customers.

Polling outfits do broad, snapshot polls and small, intense questioning of selected groups. They do complex, sophisticated surveys that probe what people think, what they want, what they don't want and what they don't even know they want.

These companies work occasionally for political parties - they do polls that are not published. They work on focus groups, drilling down into hopes, fears and aspirations. By the time the election is called the well-funded parties will have acquired huge books of detailed research that tells them what the voters want to hear.

From this research, manifestos are written, campaign speeches are made. They don't have to mean any of it, it's all about pressing the right buttons, as identified by the expensive research.

This gives the major parties a big head start on independents and small parties, who don't have the money to do that kind of thing. And the great trick is: this isn't election spending, because it takes place before the election is officially called.

Recently, TV3 announced an initiative that promises to add something to the political landscape. The station is holding debates in each of the 43 constituencies, with local candidates attending. The debates are to be chaired by Vincent Browne.

Up to now, political debates at election time are usually confined to a handful of party voices. These can be useful, but the party heavyweights have little trouble ignoring questions and talking down the clock by saying nothing at great length.

The national debates are little more than opportunities to repeat slogans.

Previous attempts by TV3 to enlarge the process of debate have had mixed results, sometimes boring, as often chaotic. This needs trials and tweaking. It could develop into a useful means of injecting a measure of democratic debate into an election process that's too often democratic in name only.

I hope it generates a bigger audience for TV3, but I doubt that's the only motivation. It's an attempt to broaden the political arena, at a time when not just the Seanad and the Dail have been sidelined, but the Cabinet too has had its wings clipped by the Economic Management Council.

Never in the history of the State have the formal organs of democracy been as ineffectual. And never have there been so many unelected influences on the political course of the State.

In these circumstances, the TV3 initiative is all the more welcome. Frankly, my interest in the minutiae of far-off constituencies is as limited as yours, but anyone who can't see the possibilities for increased participation has become far too cynical.

When I heard of this, I looked forward to the Mayo West debate.

Since becoming Taoiseach, Enda Kenny has run from accountability. He refuses in-depth interviews, dodges debates and repeats over and over the marketing slogans written for him.

This, on top of the atrophy of the organs of accountability, is dangerous.

My assumption was that - as in the past - Enda would come up with some threadbare excuse to dodge the Mayo West debate. "Vincent Browne made faces at my pussycat" - something of that sort.

Never did it occur to me for a second that Mr Kenny would simply order all Fine Gael candidates to stay away from the debates.

That way, no one can say he's dodging the debate - it's a, well, it's a policy thing. Honest, no kidding. Because, well, yada, yada, yada.

Every Fine Gael politician is to be forced to dodge debate, so that Mr Kenny won't look like a coward. The man's a genius!

Hardly had Mr Kenny pulled that one than word came from the Labour Party. We, said Fine Gael Beag, are not turning up either.

At which point, the two government parties went beyond seeking to protect an inept Taoiseach. Now, it had become an attempt to sabotage a legitimate media attempt to provide a public service to voters.

The parties have worked out how to achieve maximum control over the electoral process. They have the Oireachtas locked down, a rubber stamp that they wield at will. They don't need innovation in debate. They don't need any wild cards.

Lord knows how TV3 will play this, or whether Kenny will be forced to relent. I'd love to see forty-three weeks of debates, one night a week, in which those offering themselves for election will become familiar to the voters of their constituency - the sincere and the slick, the blowhards and the people with something new to say.

And Fine Gael and Labour candidates -forbidden from joining in - paying the price because a control freak Taoiseach takes his debate-dodging to extremes.

This is truly a bizarre period in public life.

Enda's second stroke last week was to test the water, to see if he can get away with bringing Frank Flannery back to run the election campaign. (You see, it's too early to have debates, but it's not too early to conduct secret polls and put the election apparatus in place.)

Remember Frank? He's the guy who used to work for Rehab, and picked up €409,000 for "consultancy services" in the period 2007-2013.

The Public Accounts Committee wanted to talk to Frank but he wasn't keen. As was his right.

Frank has a long history running Fine Gael election campaigns, and there's no one better at reading the possibilities of scooping a load of transfers on the seventh count. And he's no slouch at interpreting the data from any secret polls Enda may have already paid for.

Frank is also the guy that Enda dropped like a hot brick, when people became upset about charity salaries and consultancies last year.

And Frank is also the lad who only two months ago said of Mr Kenny: "His best-before date has passed a while ago."

In December, two of Frank's admirers, Bill O'Herlihy and George Hook, were publicly urging Enda to bring him back.

Last week, the waters were tested for the resurrection of Frank. I'm telling you, Enda's neck, you could use it to hammer out horseshoes.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss