Saturday 21 September 2019

Johnny Fallon: Opposition party debate sends implicit message to Enda Kenny

Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: Collins
Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: Collins

Johnny Fallon

IT says something strange about the current state of Irish politics that, as a new Dail term begins, it is the leaders of the opposition that decide to debate each other on national TV.

However, in doing so both sent an implicit challenge to Enda Kenny who is fast running out of excuses for avoiding debates and particular interviews.

The debate itself, on RTE’s Prime Time, did not exactly set the world alight.

A lot of it was predictable.

Gerry Adams reminded Micheál Martin of his past in FF and Martin responded by reminding Gerry of his links to the IRA.

Martin is an accomplished debater and an experienced performer but he is well aware that his participation in recent cabinets is a significant handicap in any debate.

Gerry Adams is still not quite comfortable talking about economic issues south of the border but he knows that he has the advantage of leading the one major party that is, as yet, untainted by government.

Many saw this as a battle for supremacy between FF and SF and the government supporters could sit back and enjoy what they could term an ‘irrelevant’ debate.

The truth is that what was really going on was very different. Both Adams and Martin were taking full advantage of a rare opportunity to dominate the TV screens.

Both were talking to their own voters and more importantly to voters still attached to government parties.

It would be a mistake to think that FF and SF are in direct competition and that this was the result of that.

They are competing, but more in the way Apple is competing with Coca Cola in terms of being a major brand.

The product lines are totally different and they are appealing to different consumers, they are not seeking to hit each other directly.

In the 2011 general election the demise of FF led to a vacuum in Irish politics.

This is still creating a state of flux and uncertainty as so many voters look for a home.

Fine Gael and Labour won in some style but they attracted voters that might not be comfortable with them in the longer term.

SF has quickly established itself as the party of the hard left, the ULA might dispute this but they are unable to stop the SF advance.

In terms of attracting votes, SF has concentrated heavily on those of a left wing leaning in rural areas who voted FG but who now realise that FG is a right wing party and even more intensely, they concentrated on the left wing of the Labour party in urban areas.

This vote was interesting.

Given the right wing bias of the troika it was this section of government support that was always going to be put to the test earliest.

SF has seen some dramatic poll increases as a result and it knows that there is still more to gain.

As Labour dither and panic SF pushes forward.

The longer the Labour party remains in government the better things will be for SF.

Meanwhile FF is trying to plot its own revival. It has a tougher task.

FF is aiming to attract the centrist Labour vote that may feel FG has dominated the government too much but understand the practicalities of government.

It is then also seeking to win back the old FF vote that was ‘loaned’ to FG at the last election.

This is a strong centrist vote.

The problem with both these groups is that they are willing to take some pain and wish for stability.

Right now that stability is best provided by the government. The willingness of these voters to accept some ‘tough decisions’ also means that it is not as easy to turn them against the government.

FF is attempting to provide a slightly more centrist approach to woo these voters back from what some will see as the right wing clutches.

This will take a lot longer, however, the attraction for FF is that this vote is much larger in numerical terms than any other and if it goes your way the results will be far greater.

The sad thing about last night’s debate was that it showed how divided the opposition is and how unwilling they are to work together.

But with numbers so small they need to do so if they are to be effective.

It was even more disheartening that we know the prospect of a full leader’s debate outside of an election is an impossibility.

Indeed even a strong interview seems out of the question for the Taoiseach’s handlers.

Yesterday, in the Dáil, Peter Matthews called on TD’s to see the bigger picture; he was talking in particular to his own government colleagues.

He had a point.

If Ireland is to face the troika and achieve changes or make demands then it can only be done through a political system that at least has some ability to unify itself on particular issues.

I doubt anyone found the debate riveting TV last night; both men spoke to different audiences and impressed those that wanted to hear what they were saying.

Will it have swayed anymore government voters to abandon ship? Perhaps not.

However, it will have left some niggling questions in their mind.

In particular, the Labour party must be careful; both men were appealing to different categories of Labour voter.

They have a choice to make now; do they throw everything in with FG, support the government to the bitter end and keep attacking the opposition?

Or do they seek to quietly use the opposition to back their stance in government and to extract further concessions from FG and in doing so risk the stability of the government itself?

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