Hastily cancelled photo op would have been public relations disaster

In a few months’ time, Fine Gael’s cancelled photo op to mark its first year in government will probably be long forgotten, overtaken by far weightier issues and, no doubt, far bigger controversies.

So was it all just a mountain out of a molehill then?

Enda Kenny certainly thought so. “It’s a non-story, and if that’s all you have to write about, well then, you know, fine,” the Taoiseach told reporters yesterday.

But the uncharacteristic tetchiness was because Mr Kenny knew the optics looked bad. And in politics, the optics count for quite a bit.

Had the photo op gone ahead, it would have come on the same day as the AIB announcement of 2,500 job losses. It would have come just a day after thousands of people queued outside an overseas jobs fair in Cork.

The optics would have been terrible, the kind of self-inflicted public relations disaster that political parties try to avoid.

Mr Kenny is lucky that his coalition partners did him a favour, even if it may not have seemed like it at the time.

The photocall was due to take place in Dublin’s Merrion Square at lunchtime yesterday.

On Wednesday afternoon, about 5.35pm, the Fine Gael press office sent out advance notice of the photocall, saying TDs and senators would “hold coloured stars detailing significant Fine Gael achievements in Government”.

On Wednesday night, after learning of the photocall, a senior Labour source told this paper that it was a lousy idea. Fine Gael, he said, was trying to award itself “medals” for merely completing a year in government. The Labour source said the Coalition’s first year in office had been about achieving “stability” and “nothing more”.

He pointed out that the Taoiseach and Tánaiste had already held a joint press conference earlier on Wednesday to outline in sober and business-like fashion what the Government had achieved in its first year and its future priorities. Anything more than that was “inappropriate”, “misguided” and badly misjudged the public mood.

Shortly after 8am yesterday morning, Communications Minister and Labour TD Pat Rabbitte appeared on Morning Ireland to discuss another issue.

Towards the end of the interview, he was asked about the photo op. Confirming the Irish Examiner’s story, Mr Rabbitte said he thought the event was “silly” and inappropriate, saying both parties needed to focus on the job at hand.

By 8.55am, the event was cancelled, the Fine Gael press office sending out a notice to that effect.

According to a Fine Gael spokesman, Mr Kenny learned of the event for the first time when listening to Morning Ireland and promptly “made his feelings known”. The photo op was duly — and wisely — cancelled.

TDs were furious that anybody in Fine Gael had thought it was a good idea to begin with.

Waterford TD John Deasy had expressed his reservations about it at a parliamentary party meeting in Leinster House on Wednesday night, which Mr Kenny attended. Other TDs at that meeting say Mr Kenny at one point did urge his party colleagues to attend a photocall the next day.

But Fine Gael suggested yesterday that the Taoiseach had been referring to a separate photocall in Leinster House to mark International Women’s Day and not the Fine Gael photo op.

Whatever the case, the damage was done, in the sense that members of the public reacted angrily yesterday, accusing Fine Gael of arrogance.

The needless own goal has irritated Fine Gael TDs.

“There’s no arrogance about us being in Government,” said Cork TD Jerry Buttimer. “I understand people are struggling because I’m knocking on doors and meeting with people three nights a week.

“We’ve done a lot of good work in the first 12 months restoring stability, but we have to create jobs and end emigration. This week was about the people queuing up in Cork at a jobs fair, not about us.”

Waterford TD Paudie Coffey said likewise, telling RTÉ: “I come from the south-east area where the unemployment level is currently 18.9%. I see the effort TDs are making to turn this country around, so we don’t have any time for this at all.”

Unfortunately for the TDs, Fine Gael thought there was time for it — at least until Mr Kenny decided otherwise. The first anniversary should never have been so awkward.


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