Monday 20 January 2020

John Downing: 'As election looms, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil can learn from campaigns of past to win voters' trust'

Leo Varadkar and his Tánaiste Simon Coveney have performed well on the crucial issue of Brexit and the pair are well rated in Brussels and the other EU capital.. Picture: Collins
Leo Varadkar and his Tánaiste Simon Coveney have performed well on the crucial issue of Brexit and the pair are well rated in Brussels and the other EU capital.. Picture: Collins
John Downing

John Downing

That election is coming sooner rather than later - very probably in February. What will it be like, we hear you ask?

Well, some Fianna Fáil kingpins are looking back on 1977, when they won the biggest landslide in the State's history against all predictions that the Fine Gael-Labour coalition would be returned to power.

Over at Fine Gael, they're bracing themselves for a bitter battle - but they like to reflect on 2007, when their rivals battled through a gale, kept their nerves and won again.

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So, since it's nearly Christmas let's hit the rewind button and look back on those two epic elections and see what, if anything, we might learn.

Back in May/June 1977, the media commentators were convinced Liam Cosgrave's Fine Gael-led coalition with Labour would win comfortably. This mostly relied upon a thing dubbed the "Tullymander" and named for Labour's environment minister, Jim Tully.

That wheeze created a series of three-seat constituencies where governing parties were likely to take two out of three. In fairness, it was a reversal of a similar carry-on in 1969 when Fianna Fáil's Kevin Boland redrew the constituency map, a manoeuvre unsurprisingly dubbed the "Kevinmander".

From that election onwards, the drawing-up of constituencies was given over to an independent commission happily removing much of that taint. But in 1977 the Tullymander contained a huge flaw: you still had to have the votes and when the outgoing coalition's vote collapsed the map proved a liability.

Cosgrave and his formidable Tánaiste, Brendan Corish of Labour, had stood on their record of trying to do their best in very harsh times. Within months of taking office in 1973, the Opec oil embargo had floored the economy, giving us galloping inflation, soaring unemployment and a series of product shortages.

Among the government responses was finance minister Richie Ryan tripling the price of the pint.

Fianna Fáil in opposition had been studiously rebuilding. The party's general secretary, Séamus Brennan, had been in the USA studying election campaign techniques and he brought back much street entertainment to a very colourful campaign built around the persona of the leader, Jack Lynch.

Much was made of the mass bribery of the voters with the short-lived abolition of car tax, abolition of domestic rates, and a host of State-funded employment schemes. The real problem was that Lynch's party did try to live up to the promises, with calamitous consequences.

In the end, Fianna Fáil got 51pc of the vote and 84 out of the 144 Dáil seats. Fine Gael lost 10 TDs and dropped to 43 and Labour dipped from 20 to 17. It was the biggest majority in the State's history and it probably hurried the exit of Lynch as leader and his replacement by one Charles J Haughey.

Now, Fianna Fáil knows it cannot win on that scale next time. We have long ago left the so-called two-and-a-half party system behind and "lifer party loyalty" is at best residual. But party members hope the voters are fed up with the current Fine Gael-led Government which has been with us since March 2011.

Fianna Fáil also hopes the series of end-of-term bugbears - personality things involving Verona Murphy in Wexford, Dara Murphy in Cork, and Maria Bailey in Dún Laoghaire - will take a heavy toll on Fine Gael.

It hopes most people can carry on the political defeatism surrounding health - ignoring the fact Micheál Martin was an under-performing boom-time health minister.

On the other bugbear of housing, it will hope it can profit from the old saw that Fianna Fáil can make house-building happen. Above all it hopes that - like that other Corkman, Jack Lynch, back in 1977 - Micheál Martin will come across as more substantial than Leo Varadkar.

Fianna Fáil has always fought leader-focused campaigns. Depend on the 2020 battle being even more 'presidential' with a Leo versus Micheál decision being heavily put to the voters.

But for those of us who like our politics, this one could be more invigorating than more recent elections.

Critics contemplating the 2007 contest may carp that Fianna Fáil actually won that one too. That is correct - but it was a very close-run thing and the Fine Gael focus will be on the nature of the campaign and the lessons of fortitude.

After Bertie Ahern called the election on April 29, 2007, Fianna Fáil could not get any focus on their manifesto proposals. All the focus was on the strange personal finances of Mr Ahern and the issue dominated all the party's campaign launches.

Things got worse when the Progressive Democrats threatened to pull out of the caretaker government over the issue.

One party campaign launch was delayed for an hour while Fianna Fáil kingpins contemplated their next move. They promised Mr Ahern would speak about his extraordinary money affairs.

But then the party got lucky with three "political bonuses" for the embattled Taoiseach. One was the restoration of power-sharing in Belfast, second was a high-profile meeting with Ian Paisley at the Battle of the Boyne site, third was a well-received address to the UK parliament in Westminster.

Then came the television head-to-head between Mr Ahern and Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny, who had been "out-bloking" Ahern in a nationwide tour at a time when the Fianna Fáil leader had to curb his outings. When the economy came into focus in the television debate, Kenny held his own.

But Ahern proved the master of detail, sowing doubts about his rival's competence amid voters who rightly feared gathering economic stormclouds. A TNS-MRBI poll showed the momentum had switched back to Fianna Fáil.

When the votes were counted on May 25, 2007, Fianna Fáil's vote was actually up on the 2002 haul. The party had 78 TDs and was in pole position to form a new government. A modern-day three-in-a-row was achieved against the odds.

Fine Gael can draw encouragement from that. Leo Varadkar and his Tánaiste Simon Coveney have performed well on the crucial issue of Brexit and the pair are well rated in Brussels and the other EU capitals. On their watch, over the greater part of a decade, the economy has motored very well indeed.

Back in 2012 unemployment peaked at 15pc. Now it is on a 12-year low at 4.8pc and we are arguably close to full employment. They have considerable arguments - if they the have the courage and persistence to use them.

In both "big party" cases, past performances are no guarantee of future success. The political landscape is different to 2007 - and it is a totally different world to 1977. But the fundamentals of political life remain the same - it's still all about voters' trust.

Irish Independent

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