Opinion Comment

Friday 22 March 2019

Philip Ryan: 'Fine Gael's war for the hearts and minds of Catholic voters'

Taoiseach's party facing into a silent struggle as it prepares for the referendum on divorce, writes Philip Ryan

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Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

At a recent Cabinet meeting, two Fine Gael ministers raised objections to the Government's plan to hold a referendum on divorce later this year.

Agriculture Minister Michael Creed asked why the vote was being held when there was no clamour for a constitutional change in the area. Rural Affairs Minister Michael Ring backed him up and also questioned the need for another referendum on a social issue which no one was demanding.

"Do we need another liberal vote when there's no one out there demanding it?" a source who agrees with the two ministers asked.

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"It looks like we are going after the traditional voter base that feels we have abandoned them after all the abortion legislation," another senior Fine Gael figure said.

The divorce referendum is the brainchild of Arts Minister Josepha Madigan who, as a family law solicitor, is well-placed to discuss the issue.

However, she has not always endeared herself to all of her senior colleagues on matters of faith - not least her 'saying Mass' publicity stunt last year.

A referendum on removing the constitutional restrictions around divorce will hardly be seen as controversial in the context of the levels of social change implemented by Fine Gael over the last eight years.

Voters will simply be asked to remove the constitutional amendment which requires spouses to live apart for four of the previous five years before applying for a divorce.

So you would think a party which legislated for the X Case, held a referendum on abortion and constitutionally recognised the rights of LGBT couples to marry would not have a problem with a vote on divorce.

But for some within Fine Gael there is concern the referendum scheduled for October could be the one that breaks the camel's back.

It's not hard to find a Fine Gael TD, or former TD, who will tell you they lost more votes from the introduction of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy legislation than they did from the water charges controversy.

Fine Gael was traditionally seen as a friendly house for the Mass-going conservative voter. And it didn't even matter what your preferred religious persuasion was.

You just have to look at the strong Protestant vote held by Minister Heather Humphreys, which she inherited from the late Seymour Crawford in Cavan-Monaghan.

Conversely, Humphreys is also said to believe the party should reflect on the social changes introduced in recent times before implementing more legislation. Senator Joe O'Reilly, who lost his Dail seat in 2016, would probably agree. And don't forget how conservative Leo Varadkar was before he became leader of the party.

Some in the Dublin-based upper echelons of Fine Gael would have you believe Fianna Fail is the only party with internal struggles over matters of faith. The ecclesiastical divisions in Micheal Martin's party were on full display during the abortion referendum.

Fianna Fail faced accusations of being stuck in the past, even though Martin announced his support of the referendum ahead of Varadkar.

You could argue strongly that Fine Gael TDs took the moral high ground on abortion and recognised the awful situation faced by thousands of women who were forced to travel to the UK for abortion.

The referendum result was emphatic and showed the country was not only ready for but almost insistent on the change.

Fine Gael picked the winning side. Fianna Fail, or at least part of the party, looked like dinosaurs.

But the reality is that the internal struggle in Fine Gael is just as significant as the one in Fianna Fail when it comes to social issues. There are serious concerns among ministers that the party is isolating its rural conservative vote.

This is a result of the post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by TDs after General Election 2016 and perhaps there is an element of pre-General Election 2019 (most likely) jitters.

The days of Enda Kenny branding voters as whingers were not that long ago and now the party is being led by a liberal convert who has surrounded himself with ministers of a similar disposition.

Take Health Minister Simon Harris, for example. In times of crisis, Harris likes to turn his attentions to the church. In the middle of the Children's Hospital crisis, he published a report suggesting Catholic Church-owned hospitals should remove religious symbols from their wards if they upset patients.

That said, the days of kowtowing to the Catholic Church are long behind us. But there are some out there who still find solace in the teachings of the church.

The RTE exit poll after the abortion referendum reported three in four people (74pc) saying they adhere to the teachings of the Catholic Church. Almost nine in 10 (87pc) Fianna Fail voters said they adhere (that was the wording used in the survey) to the Catholic Church, while 77pc of Fine Gael voters said the same.

One in four (24pc) voters said they attend a religious service once a week. This increased to 42pc among Fianna Fail voters and 27pc among Fine Gael voters. Fianna Fail voters, the survey suggests, are a far more devoted bunch than their Fine Gael counterparts. But should Fine Gael worry about this?

It would be wrong to suggest the battle for the hearts and minds of voters in rural Ireland will centre on which politicians say the most decades of the rosary.

But it feeds into the urban- rural divide which saw Fine Gael lose 26 seats at the last election. It is the impression that liberals in Dublin are worrying about the next referendum to right some wrong when they could be seeking to introduce rural broadband or improve the standard of life in any of the thousands of rural villages and towns devastated by the recession.

Ministers are reluctant to make too much noise about these issues. They don't want to antagonise the young prince as he marches on with his liberal agenda. That's not to say Varadkar won't listen. He used to pride himself on listening to a sounding board of views before making decisions.

Varadkar will quickly become a lightning rod for criticism from rural-based party members if the votes do not go Fine Gael's way in the local and European elections.

The party faithful, so to speak, can be fickle when things are not going their way at election time.

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