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Gene Kerrigan: Promises and lies: the framing of an election

All the sparring between the civil war parties is designed to exclude the next biggest party - Sinn Fein, writes Gene Kerrigan


Over the next three weeks, some of you will have the privilege of being lied to by actual candidates. People with familiar smiles will ring your doorbell. They'll aim to light up your day with deceptive slogans and dishonest talking points.

More of you, though, will be lied to by party hacks. These are the enthusiastic wretches who knock on your door and offer you leaflets written by the professional liars employed at great expense by the big parties.

But, the great bulk of you will depend on the media to transmit the lies these people have so carefully prepared over the past couple of years.

Of course, not all of the candidates will lie. And, of those who lie, not everything they say will be a falsehood.

Many of the party hacks are honest people, true believers, who themselves have swallowed the propaganda they've been instructed to peddle.

And, the media - well, the odd headbanger aside, on the whole we're as honest as the average teacher, farmer or factory worker.

It's our job to present, in as balanced a way as possible, the arguments put forward by the competing political forces.

And, we try - really, we do.

We describe the battlegrounds, the claims, the denials, the gaffes, the manifestos and the campaigns. We work hard and enjoy it. This is my twelfth general election - leaving aside the EU campaigns, the referendums, the presidential fun and the by-elections.

And, apart from the first couple of times, in 1981/2, when self-delusion did its dirty work, there hasn't been one campaign that didn't end with me thinking - well, we blew it again.

Too often, we get lost in the entertaining detail, and miss the big picture.

The political parties and their professionals spend months, years, concocting strategies - and often the election is over before we see what they were up to.

They do detailed surveys on what voters want, the language we'd like to hear. Then, they road test this with "focus groups", who respond to probing on what works and why.

Meanwhile, political reporters carefully cultivate party "sources". The relationship is trusting, frank, ribald. At election time the sources feed you material - sometimes the "inside story" on their own side's problems. "I probably shouldn't say this, but..."

This guy's not your source - he's your handler.

We're trying to get the shape of what the party's up to, while running to catch up with what they're doing each day - while working to a deadline. We are played, regularly, fed little rows and momentary tit-bits, while the carefully researched strategy is played out.

Apart from false promises and lies, the emphasis is on framing the election in a particular way.

In this election, the pitches are this:

The Fine Gael pitch: we're trustworthy, FF screwed the economy in 2008, brought in the IMF. Don't bring FF back to do it again.

And every word of that is true.

The Fianna Fail pitch: this crowd are all image and spin, they're criminally incompetent. Look around at the hospitals, the homelessness, failure after failure. Just look at how they've ballsed up the new children's hospital.

And every word of that is true.

The bigger picture is that the sparring between the civil war parties is designed to exclude the next biggest party, Sinn Fein. And any other political viewpoint.

The big picture is the effort to ensure that nothing interferes with the understanding FF/FG have had virtually since the founding of the State.

That understanding meant that in the run-up to 2008 FG didn't take serious issue with any FF policies. They just said they'd do the same, but they'd do more of it, and they'd do it better.

And when the banks collapsed, FG backed FF in bailing out the likes of Anglo Irish, the dead bank.

They were as one in agreeing to pay billions to bondholder gamblers who privately expressed astonishment that they were coming out winners after they'd made loser investments in bad banks.

And when FF imposed austerity, to ensure the survival of the structural inequalities that led to the crash, FG and Labour expressed outrage. They then won the 2011 election, and imposed similar austerity.

Then, after the 2016 election, when the numbers didn't add up, the unspoken collaboration between the civil war parties wasn't enough. FF and FG had to join in a formal cartel-like partnership.

All going well, they'll be able to cobble together a similar arrangement this time.

Meanwhile, they seek to best one another. Fine Gael has been miles ahead in the lying. No doubt FF will catch up.

The central lie being peddled by the FG/FF cartel is that they alone are capable of government.

The lie behind this is in the figures. In the bad old days of 1981, FF/FG won 81pc of the vote.

In 2011, when the reckoning came, FF/FG got 53pc of the vote. In 2016 they got 50pc.

The electorate has clearly been looking for an alternative to the twin civil war parties.

Meanwhile, the sparring goes on.

The FG strategy is to declare FF "reckless", and to point out how dignified Mr Varadkar looked when standing in proximity to Michel Barnier when important decisions were being made.

They accuse FF of being "in favour of disorderly Brexit".

This led them to release a photo of Fianna Fail MEP Billy Kelleher. They Photoshopped it to put a Union Jack pin on Kelleher's lapel.

Crudely dishonest, yes - but I bet there are lots of people who saw that photo and are quietly puzzled. Wondering why FF is backing Boris Johnson.

Fianna Fail seems largely intent on winning back the tribal faithful who were driven away by the 2008 collapse. While Fine Gael is deep, body and soul, into the creation of a carefully fashioned image that will sway the voter.

As the bodies pile up on the streets, FG insists, "We're the law and order party".

We're expected to forget their role in the Sergeant Maurice McCabe scandal, when the credibility of the force was tested. We're expected to forget that the austerity years without question created social conditions that - in the jargon - have created new challenges for the police.

Now, together, FG/FF concentrate on isolating Sinn Fein, and other dissenting voices.

Hardly had the election date been announced when the broadcast media set forth precisely the plans that fit the FG/FF strategy.

They'll pitch Varadkar versus Martin. Leaders of two colluding parties, with similar policies, ensuring a lack of politics and a concentration on personality.

Then, Claire Byrne and Pat Kenny will chair "debates". These will have audiences, so they'll be entertaining shouting matches. They'll be live, so lies can go unchecked.

Sinn Fein, meanwhile, has concentrated on making it easy for the big two.

I'd trust Pearse Doherty to sort out the insurance scandal, which threatens services and businesses. I'd trust Eoin O Broin to improve housing - he could hardly do worse than the hapless, ideology-bound Eoghan Murphy.

On the other hand, I wouldn't put Paddy Holohan in charge of scratching his own arse.

Did no one from Sinn Fein sit down with the man and have a chat about politics? Did anyone look past his mini-celeb status?

Week two coming up. On the surface, the dance will continue, with manifestos and launches of policy documents. Meanwhile, the professionals are nodding - things are going pretty much as they predicted.

Sunday Independent