Thursday 17 January 2019

Fianna Fail and Fine Gael renew old hostilities as two leaders go to war

'Out of touch' Varadkar or 'Not to be trusted' Martin? It is the issues not timing of next election that counts, writes Jody Corcoran

Leo Varadkar and Micheal Martin
Leo Varadkar and Micheal Martin
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

With relations between Leo Varadkar and Micheal Martin growing more strained by the day, the debate has moved on from whether the 'confidence and supply' deal will be renewed to when the next election will be called, the timing of which will be important, but not as essential as some would argue, to the outcome.

The argument is made that Enda Kenny, by delaying the last election at the behest of Labour, damaged Fine Gael's prospects when eventually the country did go to the polls. I do not necessarily hold with that argument.

To anybody who cared to really study opinion poll trends at the time, it was evident for a while that the tide had gone out on the last Government, and that includes Fine Gael, well before Kenny eventually, and unceremoniously, sought dissolution of the last Dail.

While the timing (and causes) of an election are important, other factors are always more so to the result, notably to do with the state of the economy and public services in general, but not just related to such obvious issues.

The image and personalities of the main protagonists, in this case Varadkar and Martin and also Mary Lou McDonald of Sinn Fein, will also have a strong bearing on the outcome.

All three are well regarded by the public, indeed the opinion polls tell us as much; but not necessarily in the same way or for the same reasons. Indeed, there are distinct personality differences between the three, which I will come back to fully on another occasion.

More than any of these factors, however, is what we might call the underlying 'mood' of the country, and it is this which will dictate the outcome of the next election.

The mood is good, but not as great as some would have you believe. There is renewed optimism laced with a degree of caution, somewhat short of anxiety but certainly informed by a deep frustration at the well-documented shortcomings in public services, related to housing, health and education in particular.

If we were to look back at previous elections, I would suggest the mood is similar to that in 1997, when the Rainbow Coalition led by John Bruton of Fine Gael went to the country early as opposed to late and suffered a result similar to that of Enda Kenny. So, as we can see, the timing of an election is not the be all and end all.

In a way, the country is again on the cusp of great potential, as it was in 1997, which was fulfilled for an election cycle into the early noughties, before it began to come off the rails, fully hitting the wall another cycle and a bit after that again.

And it was at the scars of this crash that Leo Varadkar sought to pick when he warned last week that Fianna Fail was currently behaving in a fashion that it would ruin the country again.

A decade on from the crash, the Taoiseach's "calling out" of Fianna Fail still has a deep and potent public resonance; similarly, the Fianna Fail leader's charge against Varadkar - "The Taoiseach is completely out of touch" - remains a problem for Fine Gael.

In other words, there is a validity to the charges and counter-charges of both, which can tap deeply into the national psyche and inform the much derided, but still essential, I would contend, civil war politics between both parties.

This hostility has, by and large, stood the country in good stead over a century, but is now evolving somewhat, not least through the emergence of Sinn Fein as a political force to be reckoned with.

At its most basic, the Fine Gael charge is that Fianna Fail, party of the little people, cannot be trusted with the economy; while Fianna Fail counter that Fine Gael runs the economy primarily for the better- off in society, or for those who 'live at the end of a long avenue' as Liam Cosgrave once put it.

Varadkar again tapped this nerve in a recent speech on plans to mark the anniversary of the Republic when he referred to Fine Gael having 'rescued' and 'rebuilt' the economy "on more than one occasion when it was wrecked by others" while simultaneously outlining the achievements of Fine Gael in government since the foundation of the State.

He conveniently ignored the achievements of Fianna Fail in the area of social housing, for example; or such as, well, writing the Constitution itself as Micheal Martin reminded the Taoiseach in an unreported, but interesting all the same debate in the Dail last week.

That said, Varadkar's political attack on Fianna Fail during the week, I would suggest, has its roots more recently, in that 1997 General Election.

In effect, Fianna Fail wrested power from Fine Gael in that and the subsequent two elections by assiduously courting interest groups such as, for example, the public sector and farmers through successive partnership deals which ultimately got out of hand and eventually contributed to the scale of the crash.

That's what Varadkar was really complaining about last week: Fianna Fail's outreach again to those same interest groups by, say, promising full pay restoration or equality for young teachers or demanding fodder meal vouchers for farmers, or top-up pensions for community sector supervisors.

In return, Fianna Fail can charge, as Martin did, that Varadkar is "completely out of touch" by reference to parents at St Gabriel's special school in Bishopstown in Cork, who are crowdfunding to raise €200,000 to provide for 43 special needs children with severe and profound diagnoses of autism; or as others in Fianna Fail did last week by citing the need for increased capitation grants to run schools, or subsidies to maintain rural post offices.

In reply, Varadkar put on his policy-wonk hat to defend the funding for new schools four or five years down the road and demanded to know what Martin's "priorities" were, which is fair enough, but opens up Fine Gael again to the 'heartless' charge and gives rise to scrutiny of its leader, with his curious mix of celebrity-nerd in a good suit.

In fact, the charges against both men and parties are not strictly accurate. It is just that their priorities are different: Varadkar's are for those who 'get up early in the morning', for which could be read the middle class or better off in society; Martin's, arguably, are for a more broad cross-section of society. But both, I would also suggest, are in politics for the common good.

In any event, more important than when the next election will be called, are the issues the result will come down to: how society should be run and in the interests of whom in the first instance; and then who can be most trusted to do that fairly, not recklessly, new fiscal rules notwithstanding.

But with that too, I would say, is the still open book on who would best represent or reflect well on the country; who most has the moral fibre to do the right thing at the right time by society, or, indeed, to know what is the right thing.

And more than that again will be another factor: who deserves it more, and this, the nebulous but still crucial - who wants it more?

As to timing, the election will not be before the October Budget, and the outcome will be informed, as much, by an EU summit that month which should make clearer whether a border of some sort is set to return to Ireland post-Brexit.

Sunday Independent

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