Monday 9 December 2019

John Downing: 'Problems for Varadkar are far bigger than the four by-election defeats - the tide has now turned'

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (Niall Carson/PA)
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (Niall Carson/PA)
John Downing

John Downing

Stuff and nonsense. That must be the response to arguments about how these four by-election defeats for the Government really don't matter and won't soon feed into the big picture of a general election effectively just weeks away.

Reality is that Fine Gael was royally stuffed in four diverse constituencies and it is very probably a harbinger of what is to come in the big one next year. Right, Leo Varadkar is telling us how these outings are a poor sideshow, the best we got was one in three voters bothering to turn out and in some cases the turnout was as poor as one in four.

But Fine Gael's problems are deeper than that. It has led the Government since March 9, 2011.

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Odds are that by the time we get a general election in spring/summer 2020, Enda Kenny and, since June 2017, Leo Varadkar will have been at the tiller for nine solid years. And what have we got?

Definitely Fine Gael, with a huge support role from Labour, led us on the grim road out of the economic slough of despondency in which we had found ourselves after the banking and general economic collapse in autumn 2008. And since then we have locked into the international economic pickup.

Unemployment is down - enforced emigration is no longer a reality. So in some ways we might be saying: "All hail Fine Gael."

But we are doing no such thing. On Friday this newspaper had the barbaric image of a 90-year-old woman on a hospital trolley. Housing for too many people is outrageously expensive. And there are other issues which have left the generality of people royally fed up.

Of course the Fine Gael strategists will tell you that we are getting too carried away here. So they lost in Cork North-Central, Dublin Fingal, Dublin Mid-West and Wexford.

They were only ever in with a shout of winning one of those, in Dublin Mid-West. When that did not happen, are we going to condemn the entire Fine Gael ship nationally? After all, government parties rarely win by-elections.

Right then, let's run those Fine Gael excuses which are being put forward. Winter weather, voter fatigue and a feeling that these votes were not entirely relevant because a general election is just months away. If you really want to plumb the depths, you can add 'The Late Late Toy Show' as an excuse for why people were reluctant to stir out at all last Friday night for the usual teatime voter rush.

But deciding not to vote is, in an odd way, a vote in itself. It says "a plague on all your houses", suggesting a lack of confidence in the political system generally. My focus this past weekend was especially on Dublin Mid-West.

It's a place where the day-to-day stuff poses big challenges for working people in relation to quality of life. Against the national trend, they voted for Sinn Féin's Cllr Mark Ward, even if only one in four bothered to vote at all there.

Well, fair play to the "Shinners" on this one. It effectively tapped into the mood of the people between Clondalkin and Lucan, and got a coterie of people, in the shadows of the M50, to come out and vote. Even allowing for that only one in four turnout, this is what elective politics is all about.

The people of Dublin Mid-West are royally fed up. But down in the very different constituency of Wexford something different was happening.

At the tail-end of the campaign, Fine Gael candidate Verona Murphy released a defiant video claiming to have been a victim of a media-driven character assassination. Ms Murphy had been the focus of a series of controversies which epitomised the story of a successful business person assuming that all the business skills are transferable to a better foray into politics.

Well, some business skills work in the political realm. Other business skills are better left at the political door.

The case of Ms Murphy raises big questions about where Fine Gael now finds itself. She clearly sees herself as a candidate for the forthcoming general election. But many key people within the party feel she has some miles of road, both literally and figuratively, to walk before that should happen. Leo Varadkar has wisely kept his options open here - though Fine Gael HQ feels she still has potential and perhaps fears she might also field as an Independent.

So, what are the other take-away stories from these four lacklustre calls to the polls? Well, Fianna Fáil and its leader Micheál Martin gain bragging rights with wins in Cork North-Central and Wexford.

If it manages this one right, come the upcoming general election it can regain the initiative from Leo Varadkar and Fine Gael, which was rated ahead of it in a slew of recent opinion polls.

The latest survey last Sunday week put Fine Gael six points ahead of Fianna Fáil. After this brace of by-election wins, Mr Martin has launched scathing attacks on the party he is propping up in Government in efforts to reverse that trend and gain momentum.

We had begun writing about Sinn Féin's demise after poor local and European Parliament elections last May. According to opinion polls, Mary Lou McDonald's party appeared stalled, or even gone into reverse. The win for Mark Ward in Dublin Mid-West is a very welcome boost.

Its performances elsewhere were not as promising. But an extra Sinn Féin TD will do nicely and give it reasons to insist it is fighting back. Note also that Labour polled well in all four contests, suggesting that predictions of its demise may be slightly premature. Labour still exists only in pockets - and it remains defiant.

But above all, watch the Green Party, which was annihilated after coalition with Fianna Fáil from 2007 to 2011. It is now very much back in business.

The Green Party's first ever by-election win via Cllr Joe O'Brien, in Dublin Fingal, is worthy of note. And the Green vote was pretty good across the four by-election constituencies, suggesting that its strong opinion showing around 7pc is not just fluff.

Yet, the rise of the Green Party is not good news for Fine Gael. The crazy caricature of Green voters as "blueshirt wearers with green fingertips" is of course by definition just a caricature.

But, then again, reflect upon your friends and neighbours and see how that one chimes with you.

Anyone in Fine Gael old enough to remember the June 1977 Fianna Fáil landslide election victory may have a certain sinking feeling. Forty-plus years later the people are fed up with Leo Varadkar, and fed up with failures on health and housing. Look out Fine Gael.

Before the 1977 election Liam Cosgrave, of Fine Gael, belatedly picked upon an opinion poll, a business then in its infancy in these parts, and found he was going to lose. At that point too, the people were really fed up with the shape of things.

Irish Independent

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