What does the modern iteration of Fine Gael stand for? This is the question that has dogged the leadership of Leo Varadkar since he became party leader two years ago, says Gary Murphy
Fine Gael has long had two wings. One is rural, big-farmer oriented and favours conservative economics and social mores. This was the classic Cosgrave party. The other is urban, liberal on social issues, has an economic conscience and currently recognises the need for climate action. This was the just society party epitomised by Garret FitzGerald.
As Ireland has increasingly liberalised on issues such as divorce, abortion, and same-sex marriage, the FitzGerald wing has come to dominate Fine Gael’s politics. In that context, Varadkar is the rightful heir to FitzGerald, notwithstanding his rather intemperate attack in 2010 on Garret the Good’s boring economic columns in the Irish Times back when he was part of Enda Kenny’s front bench.
Around the same time Varadkar described himself in a Hot Press interview as “centre-right”, declaring that before you distribute wealth you have to create it. He insisted that the vast majority of Irish people also had a centre-right mindset and voted that way but couldn’t admit it because “right” was a bad word.
Varadkar also stated that the reason he joined Fine Gael was “values” and that Fine Gael was the party which would tell people the truth even when they didn’t want to hear it. Seven years later in his barnstorming campaign for the leadership, Varadkar set out the view that, under his watch, Fine Gael would be a campaigning party.
Echoing the great French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, he called for a new social contract, with everyone having an equal opportunity to flourish in the new, modern Ireland.
This was quite a clever move as Varadkar had clearly seen how Fianna Fáil’s 2016 campaign slogan of an “Ireland for all” had caught the public mood with its central message of social fairness.
Fine Gael had no such message. In fact, it really had no message at all beyond a “we’re doing a grand job, leave us at it” narrative. Alas for them, the Irish people in the austerity era needed convincing before parting with their vote and many of them decided not to cast their ballot for their local Fine Gael candidate.
There is a relatively easy explanation for this. The party, its leader Enda Kenny, its TDs, and its supporters completely misinterpreted the 2011 general election as a resounding victory for its innate goodness.
Believing that it was elected to fix the mess caused by the feckless Fianna Fáilers, the Blueshirts luxuriated in the idea that it was Ireland’s new natural party of Government. The reality was that a very large amount of the 40% of the electorate that had always voted Fianna Fáil wanted to punish the soldiers of destiny for leading the country to the abyss.
Despite all the talk of new parties, in 2011 that vast centrist vote in modern Ireland could only go to Fine Gael or Labour. At its heart, it was a soft vote. The one Fine Gaeler who understood this was the party’s election guru Phil Hogan, who called for those who had traditionally voted Fianna Fáil to lend their votes to Fine Gael.
The problem for Fine Gael in 2016, with Hogan exiled in Brussels, was that it gave those people who had lent their votes to the party in 2011 no good reason to vote for it. Its vacuous “Keep the recovery going” slogan summed up the ineptitude of its campaign.
Serious social problems like health and homelessness which have dogged Fine Gael since 2011, and for which the party seems to have no answer, were relegated by the party to the status of also-rans in the 2016 general election campaign. But these were issues for which the electorate wanted answers.
The result was the reduction to Fine Gael’s core vote of 26%. The extra 10% who had brought Fine Gael to the heights of 36% of the vote and 76 seats in 2011 decided it needed more reason to vote for the party than what was on offer.
Now two years into Varadkar’s leadership, Fine Gael remains mired at in or about 26% in the polls. Varadkar’s insistence that Fine Gael represented those who get up early in the morning was one of those vacuous phrases that spin doctors love, but which is essentially meaningless.
For far too long Fine Gael has struggled to explain what it stands for and what vision it has for the country. In fact, no leader of Fine Gael since Garret FitzGerald in the early 1980s has given the electorate a good reason to vote for the party beyond the fact that it was not Fianna Fáil.
FitzGerald’s Fine Gael preached economic orthodoxy by controlling the national debt and lowering inflation. Socially it advocated its so-called constitutional crusade. Yet the results were disastrous.
The national debt trebled during FitzGerald’s years as Taoiseach between 1981 and 1987, unemployment was rampant, and emigration reached heights not seen since the misery of the 1950s. On the social front, the so-called pro-life Eighth Amendment, which FitzGerald personally opposed but was bizarrely powerless to prevent, was decisively passed in 1983 and the divorce referendum failed dismally three years later.
Painted by his enemies a being a free-market ideologue, and being all spin and no substance — a kind of youthful Ronald Reagan — Varadkar’s Fine Gael talks Reagan-like of promoting an entrepreneurial culture, low taxes, and fiscal prudence. Yet it spends public money in a way that would make any good old-fashioned socially democratic party blush. Constant health overspending, the runaway riot that is the cost of the National Children’s Hospital, and the white elephant of the countrywide broadband plan are testament to this.
Fine Gael is also unsure of what its target audience is. During the party’s 2017 leadership campaign, one of its steadier hands, Charlie Flanagan, referred to Varadkar as the change candidate and took the view that Fine Gael would be far better off being led by a Dublin TD, given that the capital would be the main battleground in elections to come.
This seemed to spectacularly miss the point that Fine Gael’s difficulties in the 2016 general election were mostly rural in nature. Their vote actually held up remarkably well in Dublin. Unexpected victories on the north side for Paschal Donohoe and Noel Rock were copperfastened by the two seats the party won in both Dublin Bay South and Dún Laoighaire.
By contrast, Fine Gael was wiped out in its rural heartland of Tipperary and won just 12 out of 43 seats in Munster. It was just as bad in Enda Kenny’s bailiwick of Connacht Ulster, where the party won only eight out of 28 seats. By contrast, Fianna Fáil’s recovery was based in Munster and the west, where it outpolled its long and bitter rival.
Yet the Kenny loyalists in the west of Ireland flocked to Varadkar in the opening 24 hours of the Fine Gael leadership campaign, giving him a momentum that would propel him to the leadership and the office of Taoiseach. They were convinced that Varadkar was the man to save their seats and bring a new generation of voters to the great political movement that is Fine Gael.
With Fine Gael no higher in the polls now than they were two years ago, the idea that Varadkar was the panacea to the woes of Fine Gael appears illusionary. Last month’s local election results offer the party no succour in either Dublin or rural Ireland. The European election, which Fine Gael did tremendously well in, will be relatively meaningless when it comes to evaluating how the looming general election might go.
Politics is about more than personality and if Varadkar is to change the nature of Irish politics and bring lasting electoral success to Fine Gael, he needs to espouse a vision for the party that Enda Kenny, for one, could never do.
During that essentially bloodless 2017 Fine Gael leadership campaign, Simon Coveney went somewhat over the top when, after a desperate first week that saw all the party’s heavy hitters declare for Varadkar, he declared that the leadership was a battle for the soul of Fine Gael. Yet he did at least recognise that Fine Gael needs to have a soul which it can put on display to the country.
As Fine Gael faces into a year that will define both Varadkar’s and the party’s future, very few people still have an idea as to what Fine Gael stands for. If he is to return to Government Buildings as Taoiseach, he needs to espouse a vision for Fine Gael that isn’t just about managing Brexit and making small dents in the health and homelessness crises.
It’s time for Varadkar to revisit the campaigning party he promised on becoming Taoiseach and put flesh on the bones of the social contract.
If he does so, his chances of winning the election are high. If not, he and his party are doomed to opposition.
Gary Murphy is professor of politics at Dublin City University
The success of the Fine Gael administration, as it prepares to seek a third term, could all come crashing down thanks to external influences, writes Juno McEnroe
There are mixed views about Leo Varadkar in political circles. Among Fine Gael colleagues, the young Taoiseach is viewed as sometimes awkward. Distinct from his chatty and shoulder-punching predecessor Enda Kenny, Varadkar nonetheless is a listener and more direct.
Voters turn to him with camera phones and smiles. But undoubtedly the so-called Leo bounce in opinion polls — revelled in by party members when he became leader in 2017 — has come to a halt.
A key Fine Gael advisor confided this week: “One of the biggest challenges for us is voter fatigue. Are people sick of Fine Gael after eight years in power and how do we take ownership of the economic improvements?”
Across the Dáil chamber, opposition TDs are maybe more generous. Fianna Fáil complain that their government counterparts Fine Gael are more obsessed with spin than action. But grudgingly, they concede Varadkar will be a strong challenger in any general election debates.
“There’s no doubt he will appeal to younger voters,” says a stalwart Fianna Fáiler.
Separate from the personality battles that dominate a general election, Varadkar’s troops concede there are political hurdles and threatening circumstances to overcome before going to the country.
Without doubt, Brexit lies firmly at the top of that list. And despite Brexit having been voted for three years ago, confusion still surrounds Britain’s EU exit, particularly with a Tory leadership race underway across the water to succeed Theresa May.
Ireland’s win of a bulletproof Brexit deal to protect the border in December 2017 initially benefited Varadkar and Fine Gael in opinion polls. Just after that EU-UK deal, Fine Gael were on a high of 36% in support among voters but have now slipped to 29%, according to IPSOS polling up to May. Voters initially were happy for Varadkar to wear the green jersey, but there is genuine nervousness now among businesses, workers and households about a disorderly Brexit. Only last week, the Government confirmed over 85,000 jobs could be lost and billions of euro more borrowed if there is a no-deal Brexit.
This is on top of warnings that our economy is over-reliant on inflated corporation tax receipts. There is also a threat of it over-heating and of impacts from international trade wars.
Fine Gael are walking on a tightrope now. Varadkar’s party have made significant strides, having overseen an economic recovery, introduced significant societal reforms and faced up to a bullying Brexit agenda from London. Nonetheless, the success of the Fine Gael administration, as it prepares to seek a third consecutive term, could all come crashing down thanks to external influences, such as Brexit or international developments involving belligerent US president Donald Trump. As one Fine Gael senior figure confided to this newspaper: “We are going into a third term. It is like Fianna Fáil were in 2007. People don’t like you. But if the economy is performing well, people have a job, a home, a car... they might say ‘let’s keep this going’.”
However the key to it all, explained the senior figure, is indeed Brexit.
Senior party figures also point to the recent European election results, insisting these reveal to an electorate who want Fine Gael to be in control and in the driving seat when Brexit does indeed happen.
Fine Gael will be the largest Irish party in the new European parliament with five out of our 13 seats, one more than they won in 2014. Furthermore, Fine Gael won an average 30% from voters in the European election (rising to 33% in Midlands-North-West), a rise of almost eight percentage points on 2014 results.
Fine Gael parliamentary party chairman Martin Heydon insists this was no blip: “If people fear Brexit, it is clear they voted for Fine Gael,” he told the Irish Examiner.
Heydon also concedes that there is work to be done on persuading voters once again that Fine Gael is the party of “fiscal rectitude”, after both the overspend on the national children’s hospital and the broadband project were raised on the doorsteps during the recent elections in May.
“People, rightly, always want to know that their money is being well spent.”
But the contentious spends planned for the €3bn rural broadband rollout as well as the €1.7bn now earmarked for the children’s hospital are bogging down Fine Gael in uncomfoftable territory.
The two issues have dominated leaders’ questions in the Dáil in recent weeks, Oireachtas committee meetings, exchanges on current affairs TV and radio programmes and the front pages of newspapers. What is particularly worrying for Fine Gael figures is that pay demands from across public services are being thrown on top of these lavish project spends. Suddenly, the party that built the ecomomic recovery are starting to look a lot like Fianna Fáil did in the early days of the Celtic Tiger. Are they losing control?
The key call from the leadership, including Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe, is to hold the line. Don’t let spending run away with itself. And the prudent-thinking minister used the summer economic statement launch last week to hammer this home.
Ireland was at “the top of the economic cycle” and external challenges were increasing, he said, unveiling two opposing budget plans for next year. In the case of a no-deal Brexit, he confirmed that up to 85,000 jobs could be lost and the national debt would rise billions of euro.
Should a Brexit deal be reached, Mr Donohoe estimates the economy would grow by a healthy 3.3% in 2020 and he would have a surplus of €1.2bn. But the economy would run at “full capacity” and could overheat. Either way, Fine Gael are in jeopardy of losing control of the finances.
“The big challenge is to maintain economic prudency,” added Heydon,” and ensuring there is no downward projectory.”
Another issue that hurt the party (which it has still yet to grapple with) is the scandal of TD Maria Bailey’s injury claim for fallling off a swing at a Dublin hotel. While it may just seem like a Leinster House story, Fine Gael figures said farmers and the self-employed were livid their over this during the recent elections. That and Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy’s quip that people should be excited about the new phenomena of co-living in cramped accommodation caused election headaches. The latter went down like a bomb in urban areas, confided one party figure.
Junior housing minister John Paul Phelan, who oversaw the party’s local election campaign, admits some recovery is necessary over the summer.
“We need to regain what was lost. Our trump card has always been we will look after the economy. We need to regain that credibility.”
The coming weeks will enlighten Varadkar and his ministers about what problems lie ahead. A new British prime minister should be in place by the last week in July. By then, Brexit will again dominate. This may give the troubled Fine Gael government some breathing space on domestic issues such as broadband and health. But be warned, this minority government’s time is running out very quickly and at some stage its luck will too. Then, Varadkar will have to take the party into a new and riskier election battle.
By Juno McEnroe
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is preparing to fight an early winter snap general election to win a third term for Fine Gael if a Brexit deal is hammered out by Halloween.
Fine Gael figures say this is the best strategy rather than face risky outcomes and uncertain Dáil numbers from four byelections that must be held to replace TDs elected to Europe.
Neither Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil, which supports the Government in power, wants a general election while the Brexit EU-UK talks are up in the air and ahead of a new British prime minister settling in. Instead, Mr Varadkar and his election strategists say the best option for a necessary general election would be November. This would be after the Budget and the new Brexit deadline of October 31.
“There’s an impending sense of an election. It would be November, after a Brexit deal, and rather than go through with the byelections,” confided a minister familiar with the strategy.
Mr Varadkar must call the holding of the by-elections within six months of the first day of the new European Parliament, scheduled to meet on July 2. By-elections must be held to replace outgoing TDs Billy Kelleher, Frances Fitzgerald, Mick Wallace and Clare Daly, all of whom were elected to the European parliament.
While this would give Fine Gael until January to hold the votes, party figures are nervous about the outcomes, with expectations that only Ms Fitzgerald’s Dublin Mid-West seat might be held. Uncertainty around whether Fine Gael can keep the numbers required under the confidence and supply deal with Fianna Fáil to control the Dáil is also pushing the party towards going to the country in November.
An early winter election then would be after the Budget and potentially ahead of what is usually a tough period for a government’s with hospital crowding and the flu season. And those in tune with TDs say Fine Gael is ready to fight for a third consecutive term.
Party chairman Martin Heydon says if a general election were to come Fine Gael would be ready and willing to face questions from the electorate.
The other option being debated internally is that the Fine Gael government sits out the time allowed for the by-elections to be called right up until the last minute.
Mr Varadkar might then announce in early January that there will be a general election the next month instead of risking the outcome of the four votes.
This would likely require the Dáil to be recalled early, say party figures. Fine Gael could be in a much more difficult position if the economy falters at any stage, if strikes and pay demands mount up and at a time when traditionally governments take the most heat over crowded health services and homelessness. This is besides even thinking about where Brexit could be at that stage.
The last possible outcome for the next general election is the one Mr Varadkar has himself openly said he would prefer — to go to the country next summer.
However, most political observers cannot envisage the fragile confidence and supply deal-damaged and almost without purpose now-lasting until that long. Furthermore, internal party problems are piling up too, including a row in Waterford over the election candidate there and complaints about local TD John Deasy.
For Fianna Fáil’s part, Michael Martin’s officials say they want to see things out, as pledged by the party leader when he said in writing to Mr Varadkar that the opposition party would maintain support for the government until the Brexit dilemma is resolved. Martin’s advisors also are happy to go through the by-elections, where they see the possibility of at least winning Cork North Central back and maybe gaining a seat in Wexford.