Fergus Finlay: All the weeks of speculation have walked Varadkar into an election

Fergus Finlay: All the weeks of speculation have walked Varadkar into an election
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at RTÉ headquarters in Donnybrook, Dublin, following the interview in which he said he had decided on an election date. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins

On Sunday, the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, told RTÉ his mind was made up on an election date. By the time you read this, I’m guessing the speculation will have settled on Wednesday for the day of dissolution of the Dáil.

In all probability, that means Friday, February 7, will be polling day.

If they opt for a longer campaign, of course, we could have a Valentine’s Day election, though I wouldn’t expect any declarations of undying love.

I hope the Taoiseach doesn’t go down in history as Leo the Unready. Of course, he wouldn’t be the first Taoiseach to have been trapped into an election.

The speculation that has been building for weeks was always likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Leo’s failure to nip it in the bud, to make the date of his choosing clear, means that he is a prisoner of the speculation. Even if he wants to, he can’t stop an election now. He has lost control of the timing.

Previous taoisigh have taken us by surprise. Others have reacted to specific events, without allowing speculation to develop.

In the main, those who have called an election because the gossip got too much have suffered.

But Varadkar is surrounded by TDs who are ready to get it over with. There’s a mood that grips Leinster House at a time like this.

Even TDs who have no reason to believe that they can hold on to their seats want to take the punishment now. The back-room practitioners have spent so much time convincing themselves that this is their time to shine that they will never urge caution.

The media are slavering for an election. They might spend half their time writing weighty columns about how an election is not in the country’s interest, but, really, they love the circus that an election can become.

And it’s good for the media. Newspaper sales go up, TV and radio audiences grow, and there’s a steady stream of advertising revenue.

Even in an era when social media will play a bigger role than ever before, this is still a time when traditional media comes into its own.

Apart from that, the political system is ready. Except, in all probability, Fine Gael itself.

Fergus Finlay: All the weeks of speculation have walked Varadkar into an election

There’s stuff that has to be done in party head offices in the immediate run-up to an election. Not only do candidates have to be chosen, but really good photographs have to be taken for the posters.

There has to be both a national and a local postering plan, with consistent designs, an agreed campaign slogan, and all the necessary messaging. National campaigns by big parties must be coherent, with a solid and recognisable look and feel, which won’t change from constituency to constituency.

And the campaign slogan really matters, especially for a party in government. Remember the last one, “Keep the Recovery Going”? That really blew up in Fine Gael’s face, and, for that reason, theslogan this time will be closely analysed. It’s going to be almost impossible to produce something that will resonate with people around the country, and pass muster in a highly judgmental media environment.

You’d normally have a sense, around now, that the party apparatchiks have been beavering away in the background, getting everything ready, so that, at the touch of a button, an exciting and forward-looking campaign would suddenly appear.

If they have been doing the hard yards, there’s very little sign of it. Even the Taoiseach’s interview on Sunday, as professional as it was, dealt entirely with things the Government had done. And it was littered with facts and figures, many of which were disputed by David McCullough, who was doing theinterviewing.

The thing is, there was barely a word about what Leo and hisgovernment were going to do ifre-elected. All the signs were of a Taoiseach so impressed by his own record that he hadn’t given a moment’s thought to unfinished business.

This election will be fought against the backdrop of an unequal society. We’re a rich country with terrible childcare policies, with 4,000 homeless children, with an entire generation of young people for whom the property ladder is a pipe-dream. We’re a rich country, where the only sector of society that endures record unemployment is people with disabilities.

The Taoiseach cannot go into, and through, an election campaign without answers to those issues. If he does, he will end up wondering how a government that managed Brexit brilliantly and restored a power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland still ended up beingrejected by the people.

So it’s game on. And that’s a good, healthy thing. The people of this country have messages they want to send to their politicians, and they’re important messages. The politicians who listen and respond appropriately — and honestly — are the ones who will do well. Those who are seen to be incapable of listening will be punished.

The key message right now is simple. It’s, “don’t tell us what you’ve done. Tell us how our quality of life is going to get better if we trust you now. And be specific about it.” I heard Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin doing a long interview with Ivan Yates last week.

At the end of it, Martin was asked why anyone should vote for Fianna Fáil. Without hesitation, he said he’d hire the doctors and nurses the health system needed.

He said he’d make sure that young people could buy their own homes, or afford to rent them. He said he’d guarantee that people who had to go to hospital would be treated with dignity. “I can’t promise everything,” said, “but I do intend to do that.”

Fergus Finlay: All the weeks of speculation have walked Varadkar into an election

THERE’S many a slip, of course, and many a long day before any election campaign is over. But right at the end of the phoney war, Micheál sounded readier than Leo.

The only problem was that he was so well-prepared for the question, it sounded glib. Enda Kenny once got by with a five-point plan, but Micheál, with the track record we all know about, has to do a lot better than that.

But this is a high-stakes election. The party I’ve supported all my adult life, the Labour Party, is determined to make a meaningful comeback this time, and to lay down roots for a better future. The Green Party will be making a serious play to be an indispensable party of government.

Sinn Féin will use every resource at their disposal to be in a position of power in both jurisdictions on the island.

But perhaps more than that, we are in a position, as a people, to choose the best group to chart a better future for all of us. Not to clean up a mess, or to solve an economic crisis, but to really build something durable for the long-term.

As an electorate, we’ll be critical and demanding, as we have every right to be. If Leo or Micheál want to be the chosen one, they’d better put their best foot forward. And keep it there.

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