Tuesday 17 September 2019

Fine Gael's new young tigers stake a claim to Bebo generation

As Fine Gael holds its ard fheis, the party hopes its new breed of candidate will help it to regain power at the upcoming election. KIM BIELENBERG reports

It is the first Irish general election campaign where candidates go canvassing for votes using personal videos on the internet site YouTube.

They write their own internet diaries, lambaste their critics on the web, and in the case of Lucinda Creighton, the quintessential smart young face of Fine Gael, even place posters above urinals in pubs - with the cheeky slogan: "Don't see a good election wasted."

John Paul Phelan, another young Fine Gaeler, is going for a Dail seat in Carlow-Kilkenny with the kind of campaign that may raise a few eyebrows among the Blueshirt elders.

His cheesily titled website, "Phelan Real", announces itself to a waiting world with the sub-heading: "Young Kilkenny Politician on Life, Love, Spiders, Politics, Hurling, Burnt cheese, Beer, Taco Fries and Detox."

It's politics, but not as we know it.

Some might cringe, but if youthful hunger and campaigning zeal were the yardsticks by which Fine Gael's new young candidates were judged, the party would win the upcoming election hands down.

At the last election, the party seemed old, tired and lacking in leadership. But not for the first time, it has reinvented and rejuvenated itself in a bold bid for power.

They did the same in the 1960s with the so-called "young Turks", a loftier bunch who helped to shape modern Ireland.

Figures such as Declan Costello and Garret Fitzgerald promoted a more liberal image of the party, a strategy that led it to electoral success in the following decades.

Fitzgerald is now the party's retired elder statesman. At the last election, the nadir of Fine Gael fortunes, the party did the unthinkable and failed to win a single seat in Garret's former Dublin South-East constituency.

In neighbouring Dun Laoghaire, another traditional Fine Gael stronghold, the party also drew a blank - an even greater shock to the Blueshirt bluebloods.

If Enda Kenny is to move into government buildings as Taoiseach, candidates like Lucinda Creighton - a highly presentable and articulate 27-year-old blonde barrister, dubbed somewhat condescendingly as one of "Enda's angels" - will have to win back the leafy heartland of Dublin South East.

Otherwise, Enda will become the third Fine Gael leader of his generation who never sat in the Taoiseach's chair.

Nobody should be under any illusion that the campaign proper has not started. All that has been missing is the official starting shot.

Like most of her young colleagues, Creighton, who won a seat on Dublin City Council three years ago, has been campaigning relentlessly for months.

For the moment, she has set aside her career as a barrister in order to campaign full-time, starting before nine in the morning and finishing after 11pm.

Early on Wednesday, she was appearing on Newstalk 106 to talk about ageism in politics; she took part in a "meet and greet" outside a local supermarket in Ranelagh at 11; and there was more canvassing in the afternoon before she hosted an evening public meeting about the health service.

She also took time on her regularly updated website to take a swipe at Progressive Democrat TD Fiona O'Malley for suggesting that the Irish should become the "wind Arabs of Europe" - making the most of wind energy in the absence of rich oil reserves.

Creighton believes that the internet is a useful tool for a politician, but she does not believe the election will be won or lost in internet chatrooms and on YouTube.

She feels it is crucial to try to meet every single voter in the constituency. That means putting in hours of old-fashioned hard graft.

"A recent Irish political study showed that 80% of voters voted for someone whom they had met," she says, standing outside Mortons Supermarket cheerfully collaring passersby. It quickly becomes apparent that many voters have already met her on previous canvasses.

Though impeccably polite, the voters in Ranelagh - one of the most affluent areas in the country - ask searching questions and are not going to be blind-sided by extravagant promises.

A tweedy Dublin 6 madam is not impressed by electoral goodies: "Yes, Miss Creighton, you've made all these promises, but how are you going to pay for them? Are you going to raise taxes?"

If she is remembered for nothing else during this campaign, the Trinity graduate will be recalled for her ads in men's loos. One wag suggested she had taken political leaking to a new level with the ads, which will adorn public conveniences in pubs throughout the campaign.

But behind the glitz, the glamour and the toilet humour, Creighton is keen to raise the serious issues, and clearly has a good grasp of them. She says the health service, class sizes, and local planning are the big issues that come up time and time again on the doorstep.

The Government may be due for an electoral battering, but a key question for voters remains: what does Fine Gael, the putative leaders of an alternative government, actually stand for - apart from being a more gentrified version of Fianna Fail?

It has traditionally been portrayed, on the one hand, as the party of conservative, overfed cattle ranchers; and, on the other, as a party of milk-and-water social democrats, trailing along with Labour.

Creighton does not flinch at the question: "We are a centre-right party. We believe in low taxes and private enterprise, but we also believe in decent public services. The difference between us and Fianna Fail is that they don't actually stand for anything."

Like many of her fellow young Fine Gael candidates, Creighton has joined the internet social network craze on Bebo, but unlike some of her colleagues she prefers to keep her site private.

When you look at the attempts of other candidates to get down with the kids on the internet it is easy to see why Creighton confines herself to straight political commentary on the web.

John Paul Phelan's web diary, in which he waxes lyrical on various matters including local hurling and the situation in Zimbabwe, is riddled with spelling howlers.

Commenting on the necessity for politicians to be affable, Phelan writes: "No one votes for up-their-own-ass unpleasent s.o.b.s so our politicians tend, at the very least, to be affable, pleasent and damm good company." Fine Gael might be well advised to invest in a spell-checker.

Critics can also make their presence felt on the internet sites of politicians.

Orla Doyle, a visitor to the Phelan's Bebo page, asks: "Just wondering if Fine Gael will be giving free bin tags for people to recycle all the crap that is going to come in our door over the next few weeks????"

Amid all this campaigning verbiage, there is a danger that the message becomes trivialised. As Fine Gael glorifies youth, Fianna Fail may be tempted to glorify experience.

Using the web to promote yourself is fine and dandy. But as one visitor to Phelan's Bebo page remarked: "jp do u ever do any work , ur fecking always on line!"

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