Wednesday 21 August 2019

Philip Ryan: 'The election sniping has started - just leave them to it'

Confidence and Supply makes it tricky, but the fight between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail is warming up, writes Philip Ryan

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin
Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin

The general election campaign has started. It began not long after the final results for the local and European election results were announced last month.

Fine Gael's senior ranks tried to spin the results as a great success but the reality is that it under-performed. Yes, the European election result was good for Fine Gael but its performance in the locals was underwhelming.

The main lesson the party took from the locals was that Fianna Fail is its main and only rival and Micheal Martin is enemy number one.

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"The electorate has copped on to Sinn Fein so we don't need to worry about them as much any more," a Fine Gael minister said last week.

"It's now all about exposing Micheal and Fianna Fail," the minister added.

Fine Gael ministers believe they have unwittingly helped rehabilitate Fianna Fail by being overly passive towards their Opposition colleagues due to the collegial nature of the Confidence and Supply agreement. The arrangement presents problems for both parties but Fine Gael is concerned it has given Fianna Fail too much leeway to criticise it without any recourse to hit back.

Neither side wants to collapse the current administration yet, but there has always been more responsibility on Fine Gael to keep the show on the road as it has the keys to Government Buildings.

But all that is changing. At a Fine Gael ministers meeting two weeks ago, the Taoiseach told his Cabinet colleagues he wanted a renewed focus on Fianna Fail's stance on various issues and policies, especially when it relates to spending.

"Micheal wasn't really scrutinised before the last general election because it was seen as Enda Kenny's to lose but now we are going to make sure he's scrutinised," a minister said.

Another Fine Gael source said the next weeks and months are going to see "blood and guts" on the floor of the Dail as the party ramps up its attacks on Fianna Fail.

The escalation of political amateur dramatics began last week when Fianna Fail TD Timmy Dooley presented Fine Gael with an open goal by questioning the environmental impact of the Government's national development plan and all the road construction that goes with it.

Cue a series of tailored Fine Gael press releases for individual constituencies questioning Fianna Fail TDs' commitment to certain road projects.

The party then rolled out its self-appointed attack dog, Junior Minister Patrick O'Donovan, to criticise Fianna Fail on various radio and television programmes. It was all-guns-blazing stuff. However, there are concerns within Fine Gael over putting O'Donovan on the airwaves to act as the face of the party.

"He comes across as too partisan and arrogant," a minister said last week. Some in Fine Gael believe the snide comments about the Opposition are fine in the parliamentary party but on television they come across as condescending.

Fine Gael is also planning to utilise more of its junior ministers in the media to attack Fianna Fail as part of its new strategy.

While O'Donovan was doing the rounds last week, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was in the Dail calling Micheal Martin "two-faced" for demanding extra funding for health workers who were threatening to strike last week. It wasn't a passing comment, he repeated it three times.

The clearly prepared rebuttal is part of the party's new approach. But to what end?

Fine Gael, and especially the Taoiseach himself, feel a little hard done by from the electorate. Varadkar even said last week he found it "strange" that people voted for Fianna Fail after it oversaw the collapse of the economy. But surely he realises time heals all wounds and people move on.

For instance, voters still voted for Fine Gael and Michael Noonan in 2011 years after being repulsed by the Hepatitis C scandal less than a decade earlier. Memories are short. Nonetheless, Fine Gael intends to constantly remind the public of Fianna Fail's past indiscretions while also highlighting the contradiction in its demands for financial prudence while also looking for additional spending.

Fianna Fail's front bench met last week to discuss how it would deal with the forthcoming onslaught from its governing rivals and, after some debate, decided the best approach was to take the moral high ground.

Some TDs would naturally prefer to come out swinging but, as is his wont, Micheal Martin does not want to play dirty or at least to be seen to be playing dirty.

Martin didn't bite when Varadkar was goading him about hypocrisy and being "two-faced" in the Dail. Barry Cowen was also uncharacteristically reserved on Independent.ie's Floating Voter podcast last week, when he insisted Fianna Fail will be the "adults in the room" when it comes to political mudslinging. Essentially, Fianna Fail is adopting the Michelle Obama US campaign slogan "when they go low, we go high".

You would wonder how long some of the more outspoken Fianna Fail TDs will be able to hold the line on this strategy while being wound up by Fine Gael counterparts.

However, discipline may reap rewards. The public does not want to see its politicians play politics for politics' sake. Especially when there are a hundred and one other things which they would be better served doing.

There is only so much to be gained from wheeling out Patrick O'Donovan to unleash his latest barb about Fianna Fail on national radio. Political posturing against the Opposition only impresses the party faithful. You are preaching to the choir or, in Fine Gael's case, the choir boys.

Undecided voters are not going to be swayed by cross-parliament name-calling or political bickering.

Fianna Fail will try to frame the next election much like it did the last one: Fine Gael's tax cuts versus Fianna Fail's investment in services. In 2016, it worked to a certain extent but the economy was still getting back on its feet.

Meanwhile, the Punch and Judy Show will continue and people with any sense will ignore it and let them fight among themselves.

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