With less than a year to win back disillusioned voters, Kenny and Co have an uphill battle ahead
No more than 12 months from the general election, Fine Gael and Enda Kenny stand on the brink of history.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny will make that history by either leading Fine Gael to back-to-back electoral victories for the first time in its 80-year history or by presiding over a defeat that will, if it happens, involve carnage on a grand electoral scale.
Fine Gael won 76 seats on 36% of the vote in 2011. It came remarkably close to winning an overall majority. For a party that, less than a decade earlier, after its rout in the 2002 general election, seemed in terminal decline, it was a remarkable turnaround.
It was, however, a turnaround based not on the people voting for Fine Gael with any great enthusiasm. Rather, it was that electorate turning its lonely eyes to Fine Gael after having been bitterly let down by Fianna Fáil.
The boom of the Celtic Tiger brought with it Fianna Fáil political hegemony. It also raised significant questions as to the relevance of Fine Gael.
Once the Tiger crashed, bringing misery and despair in its wake, the voters changed the nature of Irish politics forever when inflicting the mother of all electoral defeats on Fianna Fáil.
The voter did not seek original solutions but rather went to a traditional alternative it had tried before: a Fine Gael / Labour coalition. The problem for the Coalition is that it has basically been a crisis government in an era where the electorate is not a patient beast.
After four years of Fine Gael at the helm of the Irish ship of state, the Taoiseach outlined a favourable balance sheet report in his keynote speech to the Fine Gael national conference on Saturday night.
The bailout over, the troika gone, an improving economy, a caring side on show with a practically de Valeran aside that, for Fine Gael, the economy is not an end in itself and a passionate call to pass the marriage equality referendum.
All this was accompanied by the usual dire warnings of what would happen if Fine Gael does not win the next election; a return to the charlatans of Fianna Fáil who had wrecked the country or, even worse, a seat at the top table of government for Sinn Féin, which spent years trying to destabilise the state and would wreck it inevitably with their Jack and Jill economic policies.
The problem for Fine Gael was that it was elected in 2011 in essence because it was not Fianna Fáil. It had not wrecked the country and it offered hope to a country beaten down by debt, recession and austerity.
The reality, however, is that, despite an improving economy, the austerity remains and all the signs are that the electorate are sick of it. Fine Gael, at 24% in the polls, appears stuck in a rut.
The partisan set piece on show over the weekend will play well to the blue faithful but most probably has left the wider populace unmoved.
The water charges fiasco has politically galvanised people unlike ever before and it was noticeable that the Taoiseach ignored it altogether it his speech.
But this head-in-the-sand approach to water literally will not wash with the electorate, who are soon to see the water bills drop through their letterboxes.
It is inconceivable that there was no mention of the one issue that has engulfed Irish politics for practically the last 12 months. It was extraordinarily bad politics not to mention it at all.
Fine Gael will look back at the 2011 general election result with some trepidation. If such a political meltdown can happen to Fianna Fáil, Ireland’s perpetual party of government, then it can happen to Fine Gael.
Perhaps not on the same scale, but Fine Gael need to realise that the coping classes have no loyalty. They will need concrete political and economic reasons to vote Fine Gael.
Those who voted Fine Gael for the first time have drifted off to Independents. There is less than a year to win them back.
The political stability argument is overstated. As the Fine Gael apostate Billy Timmins noted in a series of withering tweets during the Taoiseach’s speech, the country had political stability during the Celtic Tiger era and when Irish Water was established.
He rather enigmatically also asked whether there was political stability during the Tallaght strategy.
That propping up of the minority Fianna Fáil government of 1987-89 eventually brought down Alan Dukes and was the beginning of Fine Gael’s long demise until the spring of 2011.
Whatever about political stability, it is the economy that remains Fine Gael’s trump card and, in many ways, only hope.
Social issues, crime, education, even health are all tangential to the outcome of the next general election.
If Fine Gael can put more money in people’s pockets particularly in the cities it will expect its vote in rural Ireland to hold up and thus return it to power.
If the economy stagnates, no amount of scaremongering on the alternatives will save Fine Gael from electoral defeat.
The left vote is gone and no one will be voting Fine Gael at a general election because they put a marriage equality referendum to the people.
In that context, Fine Gael’s strategy for the rest of 2015 should be to set out a coherent small state, pro-enterprise vision as the key to a successful economy.
That might just persuade those who voted for it 2011 to give it another chance.
Gary Murphy is Professor of Politics at Dublin City University
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