Grassroots policies the key to electoral success claims Kenny

The Fine Gael leader believes traditional tactics such as public rallies will pay dividends for his party, reports Political Editor Harry McGee.

ICONIC images of election hustings depend on the era.

The most memorable of Eamon de Valera and Michael Collins show them addressing huge throngs of people at open-air rallies.

Up until the 1980s, candidates would wait their turn, or jostle for space, on soapbox platforms outside churches to address the people coming out from Mass.

But in the modern era, mass rallies or even churchgate oratory have become spent forces. Since the 1990s, political leaders have tailored their message almost exclusively for television, radio, or newspaper coverage.

The tours of the country have been particularly laughable. Bertie Ahern whizzed through the country as speedily as the cartoon Road Runner in 2002. It wasn’t to address the small crowds who came out to meet him. Instead, it was to be seen by the biggest possible audience through the prism of television. Tours of the constituencies were reduced to rolling photo opportunities.

One of the problems of being in opposition in Ireland is that it is easy to get their criticisms quoted, much harder to get their own alternative message across. Focus groups say they view Enda Kenny and Pat Rabbitte as being too negative in outlook.

Now Fine Gael will return to an almost discarded format, the public rally, in an effort to counter that negative image.

“We have very few occasions to get our supporters fired up,” says Mr Kenny, when talking of the regional rallies that will be held in February and March.

“We are coming off the last bend in the political cycle. We will do them all over the country. It will give people a chance to get in there and have their say.

“One of the lessons (of focus groups) is that when people judge the leaders of the opposition from what they see and hear on the television. Ant that’s invariably that you are not congratulating the government (when you are in opposition).

“I will respond by having public meetings around the country. I will say: ‘Come in here and meet Kenny and form your own view of the man you see and hear and ask him questions.”

The last bend of the election cycle it may be, but the perception is that the Mullingar Accord parties have a lot of ground to catch up. During January and February, Fine Gael will launch its long sprint for election glory, with the public rallies and a billboard campaign with direct attacks on the government and its ministers.

January should also see the publication of the eagerly-awaited proposals from Fine Gael and Labour on the economy.

Does Mr Kenny believe that the Government seems to be comfortably placed in the driving seat? Yes and No. Yes, he concedes, Fine Gael have a lot more work to do. But he points to the last three polls which show his party’s average at 27%. Whereas the party was talking of a possible 30 seat gains in September, now the leader himself talks of being happy with gains “somewhere between 22 and 30”.

But will that be enough for the FG/Lab combination to win, even with the Greens? To answer that he points to the good working relationship with the Greens and makes the claim that the PDs will be irrelevant to the next election.

Why? “Given their record and their performance and what they set out to do they have been a complete unmitigated disaster,” he responds.

The word that recurs most frequently for Kenny when talking of the Government is “ambivalence”.

His assessment of Bertie Ahern includes a typical example.

“I think his best years are behind him. He is a very popular figure-head but he’s part of a culture or an ethos that has non-acceptance of responsibility and ambivalence very close to it. I think that all of this crystallised in the report produced by Moriarty after nine years.”

But Mr Ahern has survived and has seen off several Fine Gael leaders who failed at the polls. Will Mr Kenny himself step down if he is defeated, even narrowly? “I don’t contemplate defeat in the first place,” he says directly.

He lists all he has done to revive Fine Gael since he became leader in 2002 but adds: “To go to the cusp and not achieve it would be sore, very sore.”

But after a moment of thought, he adds: “I am an optimist and we are in here to win it.”

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