Wednesday 22 May 2019

FF has broken out from its purdah and Martin is having an impressive campaign

Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin. Photo: Tom Burke
Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin. Photo: Tom Burke

Liz O'Donnell

The three-week election campaign is proving long and short in equal measure. Time can drag, as in the first week, as contenders play safe for fear of losing ground. But this week, time was flying, with so much to be conveyed to voters; the political equivalent of speed dating. The Government parties must communicate their achievements, particularly at a time of an unprecedented economic catastrophe. To be fair, they probably succeeded in telling that positive story even before the election was called.

But it takes more than their record to win votes for a second time. Eaten bread is quickly forgotten. It is equally important to set out a vision and costed plan for the next five years that is credible and honest. Talking up the recovery, which has been the principle government message, is premature and not gaining traction. A better message might have been: "We are not there yet; allow us to stay the course." Instead, they, like all outgoing governments, have caved in to the tyranny of cash promises.

The biggest offer is to abolish USC, Fine Gael declaring this particular levy to be "hated". Their word, not ours. True, it is a tough universal tax, a blunt but effective instrument to raise revenue for vital public services. It may not be loved, but it is widely accepted as having been necessary in the circumstances of national penury in which we found ourselves.

One recalls Michael Noonan quoting Yeats "too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart" as he sought gradually to alleviate the burden on hard-pressed taxpayers. But there appears to be a growing sentiment against parties throwing back money at taxpayers with gay abandon, for short-term popularity and votes.

Something new has emerged. The 2016 voter is a cautious player, slow to trust politicians bearing gifts. Austerity, for all its bad name, has become embedded in our psyche. We have changed insofar as we expect prudence, caution and rainy-day contingency thinking. The well-paid want a fairer society with good public services. The extent of homelessness and hardship is not compatible with civilised values.

The Government parties appear taken aback by a seemingly ungrateful public. Politics doesn't work like that. People expected the Coalition to do its best and dig us out of a national calamity, managing the Troika and returning the public finances to stability. That was its job.

But both Coalition parties have overplayed the verdict of eternal damnation for Fianna Fáil's role in the economic collapse. There is little evidence that Fine Gael or Labour would have handled the crisis any differently.

So what has happened in the first two weeks of this campaign is that voters are looking at the government options in a fresh way.

They can note what transpired since 2011, hardship as well as recovery in equal measure. But it is a fresh throw of the dice.

Micheál Martin grasped this early in the campaign when he declared that this election was not going to be a "coronation" of the outgoing Government.

Fianna Fáil is looking most comfortable of all the contenders in this election. Always potentially a party of government, it carries the mantle of experience. In each of the debates, FF leader Micheál Martin has been articulate, knowledgeable and impressive, while the two government leaders came across defensively, repeating slogans.

While the small parties and Sinn Féin won applause, it was for populist declaratory points criticising deficiencies in state services. Always a winner with the audience. In my view, it was unfair to exclude the Greens; at least climate change and the environment would have got a mention to follow up the Taoiseach's big talk in Paris.

As always, crime comes to the fore in General Election campaigns and the recent displays of gangland brutality and brashness by way of funerals have upset most observers.

People question why the CAB is not rounding on these characters as they did after the murder of Veronica Guerin in 1996 or by policing methods which were successful in Limerick.

But the far-right, anti-crime rhetoric of Renua, lifted from republican politics in the US, is discordant. And it was refreshing to see it dismissed in TV debates by Alan Shatter and Aodhan Ó Riordáin, both of whom resisted populism in favour of human and civil rights principles, particularly in relation to juvenile crime.

A mid-week Red C poll showing a 2pc drop in support for Fine Gael apparently caused panic. Leo Varadkar's ill-judged criticism of Micheál Martin's record as Health Minister left the Fine Gael man deservedly with a bloody nose.

The Fianna Fáil leader stormed into the 'News At One' studio and wiped the floor with Áine Lawlor. Nobody in politics is better informed than Micheál Martin on health policy. It was combative, passionate and the best return of service so far of this campaign.

For good measure, he suggested partisan treatment of him by RTÉ. It was a good outing. One could feel the "borrowed votes" flocking back to the mother ship.

The Social Democrats too are in a good place. All three elected deputies are effective and principled parliamentarians. Refreshingly, they are not promising the earth and have sensible proposals for political reform, good governance and anti- corruption measures.

With a week to go, it's still all to play for.

Domestic issues have dominated. Not a dicky bird from any quarter about the refugee crisis or global insecurities. So far, the Coalition has been exposed as being slightly out of tune with the electorate.

Although Labour is finally getting a hearing with good performances by Joan Burton, the party needs not to lose heart.

If Fine Gael can get over the shock of not being loved, ground may be recoverable. But space has been left open for Fianna Fáil and others to impress.

Irish Independent

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