Wednesday 13 November 2019

The Grumpy Old Men have only themselves to blame

This Coalition won a huge mandate in 2011 and, as this poll shows, is now squandering it, writes John Drennan

The Government can spin all it wants but at the end of the day the clearest result from today's Millward Brown poll is that the political Bo Peeps of Fine Gael and Labour have lost the mandate they secured less than two years ago.

And the bad news for their increasingly terrified backbenchers is that they are displaying scant signs of any capacity to find it in the near future.

The loss is all the more surprising given that in 2011 Fine Gael and Labour secured a mandate that, in numbers at least, resembled that granted to Churchill in 1941.

Now, a government that was so willing to describe itself as being a war-time administration that there were comparisons made between Michael Noonan and Michael Collins is as popular as Neville Chamberlain was in 1941.

Like poor Mr Chamberlain, there is no good news to be found for this administration in the current poll.

Perhaps the most astonishing critique of this Government's performance is that Fianna Fail, simply by being pleasant, inoffensive and permanently apologetic, has regained its political primacy of being the largest party in the State in terms of popular support.

We were going to say that never in the history of Irish politics had a position been so easily won against such scant resistance.

In fact, Fianna Fail has simply followed the precedent where, simply by being harmless and pleasant, FG and Enda destroyed the great FF basilisk that had dominated Irish politics for three-quarters of a century.

Now, astonishingly, thanks to the inability of the poor dumb FG Bourbons to forget or learn from history, the reverse has occurred.

After the Lear-style tenure of poor Biffo, it really seemed to be the case that, like poor Cordelia, Micheal and FF were deceased, buried, gone, no longer of this earth and amongst the less than dear departed.

Now, astonishingly, less than two years later, they have reclaimed all those votes not-so-cute Old Phil borrowed from FF in 2011.

Of course, the world is never perfect, for a new Sinn Fein spectre is winking coquettishly at Fianna Fail.

Sadly, one suspects that Fianna Fail's 'dear boy' from Cork will not be at all keen to advertise the new reality that according to current trends FF and Sinn Fein constitute the most likely alternative government.

Fianna Fail instead will be hoping to make soothing noises in the direction of Labour in the hope that if the over-extended Sinn Fein advance is driven back just a couple of yards the old Albert/Dick Spring alliance will be revived.

Fine Gael may be in second place at 25 per cent but the Noonan doctrine, whereby if Fine Gael became Fianna Fail Nua they could govern permanently, is failing to thrive.

Instead, not even a deal on the promissory note can rescue the scenario whereby – rather like the infamous Guinness Lite experiment in the 1980s – the electorate has decided that if Fine Gael wants to imitate the habits of Fianna Fail, then the voters will return to the real version, as distinct to the imitation.

The situation is somewhat more equivocal for a Labour Party that has, for now, reached a place of transitional safety from the fear that a decline into single-digit support levels might see the self-proclaimed oldest party in the State experience a reprise of the Green horror story.

But we should not forget that in 2011 Eamon Gilmore proudly declared that Labour had replaced the old two-and-a-half party system with a three-party contest between a FG, FF and Labour grouping of political equals.

Today's poll reveals that Ireland now has a three-and-a-half party system, but it is Labour which is still the half party and SF, FF and FG are the grown-up ones.

Of course, all may not be lost for Labour, for at 13 per cent it is in a position to be the makeweight that will decide whether FF or FG runs the country at some future date. Nevertheless, we have travelled a long way from the days of 'Gilmore for Taoiseach'.

And should Labour decide to be the mote that tips the political balance again, it will do so in the deeply uncomfortable knowledge that SF is breathing down its neck in a terrifyingly similar fashion to the way our SF friends crept up on Labour's SDLP soul-mates in Northern Ireland.

Suddenly, rather like the Germans in Stalingrad, Mr Gilmore has found himself in the rather appalling situation where to attack, defend or retreat all offer an equally appalling long-term prognosis.

In truth, the strategic position of the Government as a whole is little better, for the Grumpy Old Men are engaged in that doomed project known as fighting a war on two fronts.

For a time it had appeared to be the case that the Government could deal with such a scenario, for whilst the weaker Italian. . . our apologies. . . Labour's soft underbelly was sustaining ongoing casualties from the start, the Fine Gael centre was holding firm.

However, as was signalled by the previous Irish Times poll, suddenly both of the Coalition's political fronts are beginning to cave in.

Labour may have stabilised somewhat but Sinn Fein, in surpassing Labour in the polls and as a national party, has annexed a sizeable rump of that soft 'Gilmore for Taoiseach' public-sector vote.

The real damage, however, is now occurring within the FG centre, where FF has seized back all of the gains that FG made in 2011.

And as FG reverts to its normal size, suddenly the Pilgrim's Progress of the Grumpy Old Men increasingly brings to mind Ulysses and James Joyce's alter ego, Stephen Dedalus, who notes that "history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake".

In the case of the Grumpy Old Men, the nightmare they are increasingly consumed by is that they could experience is a reprise of the fate of the self-proclaimed best Rainbow government we disgracefully failed to re-elect.

So why has it all gone so terribly sour for the most popular Government we never had?

It is, in fairness, not an easy old world they have to live and deal in. But most of this administration's problems are of its own making. And, significantly, its difficulties are centred on political character, rather than policy.

The great psychic flaw this Government particularly suffers from is self-pity and the worst side-effect of this ailment is that self-pity damages the capacity for logical thought.

A Government that had to clean up the sort of debacle the Grumpy Old Men inherited was never going to be popular.

But it would at least have acquired some respect if it had forcefully said that for Ireland to work as a State we must impose a property tax, water charges and the rest, as distinct from the current policy of eternally playing the victim card and twisting their caps.

The other great defect is that, like its Rainbow predecessor, the current Government is being poisoned by that school of complacent arrogance that believes that it is so good that no sane electorate could dispose of it.

One explanation for this is that the Grumpy Old Men have overvalued the nature of the mandate they secured in 2011. No one can deny they have secured the largest parliamentary majority in the history of the State, but as this triumph was secured against a political vacuum, the victory had all of the weight of a feather falling upon a scale.

This reality means that a fatal flaw is beginning to undermine the view of this administration – in particular the smirking FG wing of it – that there is no alternative to the Grumpy Old Men.

The problem is that when support is given with so little enthusiasm, even if it comes in the beguiling package of a record mandate, it can be lost just as swiftly as it had been won. And, as the Grumpy Old Men are beginning to discover, FF is more than capable of re-inventing itself sufficiently to make cuckolds of the electorate.

The Rainbow found out the hard way, a century after Joyce first compared Ireland to that merciless sow that eats its own farrow, that the characteristics of the voters have not changed too much.

On one level, we should not be surprised that the Grumpy Old Men appear to be making the same errors – for seeing as the personnel are the same, why should they behave any differently?

And just as in 1997, the Government needs to swiftly realise the problem when it comes to its collapsed support is not us. It's you.

There now, Enda; we've said it. Now deal with it or ignore it at your peril.

Irish Independent

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