Weekend’s results are enormously challenging – and hopeful

FIANNA Fáil got beaten senseless and the Green Party got beaten nearly to death.

That’s the long and the short of it. Fianna Fáil saw it coming, but still didn’t do the right thing during the campaign.

The Green Party don’t seem to have realised it was coming, and did some of the daftest things possible during the campaign.

The Labour Party went presidential, despite it not having worked for them in Pat Rabbitte’s time. They did well, but not as well as they should have.

The Fine Gael Party pulled off the ultimate coup, becoming the biggest party in local government and dominating the headlines with George Lee.

Yet – according to a woman on steam radio – “this still leaves questions over Enda Kenny’s leadership”. No, not a slip of the tongue.

She was definitely not talking about Brian Cowen.

Fianna Fáil are touchingly loyal to Mr Cowen. Not all of them, true, and not in all situations.

Pour a couple of pints into a couple of the lads who lost their council seats, and loyalty to the leader will not dominate their discourse.

But here’s the unrecognised truth: never was so unsuccessful a FF party leader so supported by those who, in a similar situation in earlier decades, would have been egging to take him out. Instead, they’ll tell you he’s clever.

A good thinker. Knows the ropes. They worry about what they perceive as his loss of confidence. But, above all, they support him.

They do him no favours in the process.

No favours.

This election saw Mr Cowen playing to his weaknesses, not his strengths. The man credited with snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, last time around, was allowed, throughout this campaign, to more or less take up residence in the jaws of defeat. Three months ago, men in dark suits (and maybe Mary Hanafin in a pastel suit) should have gone to the Taoiseach and told him to get fit and get out there. They should have told him to learn to communicate. If he’s as bright as they say and as committed as they believe him to be, he’d have had no problem acting on their advice.

Instead, an old man’s campaign was put around a relatively young man, who, when he communicated at all, communicated poorly.

The evening before the electronic media moratorium, Mr Cowen appeared on Mary Wilson’s Drivetime, Matt Cooper’s The Last Word and George Hook’s The Right Hook and in every single one of them, sounded like a senior civil servant explaining process, rather than a political leader pointing to a future worth living in. Hook lost his rag and bellowed at him. It didn’t change the plodding progress of Mr Cowen’s answers.

Media was handed over, effectively, to the ever-loyal Pat Carey and to four Fianna Fáil front benchers who were courageous and admirable during and after the campaign; Mary Hanafin, Dermot Ahern, Noel Dempsey and Micheal Martin. If each of the four is to survive the next few months, they’ll need to abandon the oft-stated belief that they’ve been punished for taking tough decisions.

They’ve been punished for making easy, obvious decisions that cause untold (if necessary) suffering to other people. For being in charge when Ireland did worse than any other country in the global recession. For their leader’s denial – remember “this is not Armageddon?”

Feels pretty much like Armageddon when your home, job and key relationship are in jeopardy because you’ve suddenly been impoverished.

They’ve been punished for long association with developers.

If the powerful figures at the top of Fianna Fáil don’t come to grips with this during the summer and come out fighting using very different weaponry in the autumn, they face two years of shaky misery ushering in a decade of Fianna Fáil as a shadow of its former self.

THE Green Party have been busily painting themselves into a corner out of which they may not get out alive. It started with John Gormley announcing they would be renegotiating the programme for government and progressed, during the final days of the election, to them taking a potshot at Fine Gael about that party’s attempts to form the last Government. This episode was astonishing in its pointless nastiness. It did Fine Gael no harm, but did two kinds of harm to the Green Party. It made them seem indiscreet and untrustworthy. It also shifted media attention off their candidates at precisely the moment when those candidates needed all the attention they could get.

I’ve worked with the Greens and like them, particularly their deputy leader, Mary White. In their own interests, they need to realise that the plain people of Ireland don’t, right now, give a sugar about the Green Party agenda, as proven by straightforward rejection of their local authority and European Parliament candidates. That’s not to say that the plain people of Ireland are not committed to the environment. It’s a bit lower on their agenda, now that survival is a more immediate issue, but they do care. They also believe that Europe dictates most environment policy here and that other parties have mainstreamed what used to be the exclusive concerns of the Greens. Whereas they once, like the PDs, led the charge an articulate minority wanted led, they’re now seen as not really that different from other parties – because of their time in government. Renegotiating the programme of government to lay more stress on green issues won’t cut it. And they haven’t a prayer of renegotiating the programme of government to lessen economic hardship. It can’t be lessened. It must get worse.

Fine Gael are in the most paradoxical position of all. They’ve come from meltdown, less than 10 years ago, to being the largest party in local government. They’ve done better in every election under Mr Kenny’s leadership than they did in the previous election. They touched exactly the right cord by pulling Mr Lee in, his win on the first count eerily echoing that of Mr Cowen and of Mr Kenny on their respective first outings. According to a weekend poll, 35% of the public want Mr Kenny as Taoiseach, as opposed to 23% who want Mr Cowen. The paradox lies in the fact that the commentariat will not relinquish their judgement of Mr Kenny as not quite leadership material.

You judge leadership on results, and Mr Kenny’s results have been unprecedented. Not even Garrett the Good got Fine Gael to where Mr Kenny’s got them. Not just as largest local authority party, but as the strongest party in economic acumen at a time when that matters as never before, with some of the strongest and most publicly-identifiable personalities (Varadkar, Coveney, Reilly, Hogan and – now Lee) in politics.

This weekend’s results are enormously challenging – and hopeful. Challenging to Fianna Fáil in the 10-year recovery task handed to them. Challenging to Fine Gael and Labour to ensure that, next time around, fewer voters channel their rage into spoiling their votes. Challenging to the Greens as – for the first time – they’re forced, as a party, to square their conscience with electoral realities.

Politics has become more exciting than it’s been in decades.

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