FF signals second image change

FIANNA FÁIL’S annual think-in next week will grapple with new ‘quality of life’ issues like childcare, long commuting times and the disintegration of community spirit that contributed to its two by-election losses this year as well as the Government’s falling support levels in opinion polls.

Guest speakers at the two-day parliamentary party meeting - starting in Ballyconnell, Co Cavan, next Monday - have tended to set the tone of the party’s political direction for the new Dáil session.

Last year, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern spearheaded the so-called Inchydoney strategy, a leftward shift of policy, following the appearance of anti-poverty campaigner, Fr Seán Healy of CORI.

This year’s guest speakers will include Ireland rugby coach Eddie O’Sullivan; sociologist Maureen Gaffney, economist Oliver Mangan; and Robert Putnam, professor of public policy at Harvard University.

The appearances of Ms Gaffney and Prof Putnam signals that Fianna Fáil will be gearing itself for another change of image in an attempt to boost its support levels in the run-up to the next election.

Ms Gaffney, chair of the National Economic and Social Forum, will address FF TDs and senators on the issue of childcare, now regarded as one of the major political issues. More than 800,000 women are in the workforce and with both parents in many families working, the relative absence of State support for, and high costs of, childcare have been identified as burning issues by all political parties in private research.

Ms Gaffney is expected to suggest the introduction of a year-long incentive for parents, either through paid leave or through the provision of free childcare. She will also recommend the provision of free kindergarten services for pre-school children.

The Government has set up an expert group on childcare. It is due to report its own findings shortly.

Two other non-agenda issues are also likely to be brought up by backbenchers at the meeting, both partly prompted by private polls which show Fianna Fáil in peril of losing 15 seats in 2007. They are: the ongoing controversy over the Colombia Three and widespread public perception of over-pricing, fuelled by the success of Eddie Hobbs’ ‘Rip-Off Republic’ series on RTÉ.

Yesterday, FG’s spokesman on enterprise, Phil Hogan, said hits on the party’s ripoff.ie website had trebled during August as a result of the programme.

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