Fergus Finlay: As campaign revs up, Fine Gael is stuck with its rear wheels spinning

Fianna Fáil brought us terrible times, but all we can remember is the good time, writes Fergus Finlay

Fergus Finlay: As campaign revs up, Fine Gael is stuck with its rear wheels spinning

Fianna Fáil brought us terrible times, but all we can remember is the good time, writes Fergus Finlay

ARE we about to do it again? For the sixth time? Is it so inevitable that it has to be seen as the single great immutable rule of Irish politics? The forgiving of Fianna Fáil, I mean.

In 1973 we couldn’t wait to fire them out of office, after years of scandal. We did it again in 1983, and in 1989, and in 1992, and in 2011. Especially in 2011, we all swore a solemn oath — never again, we all said. Throughout my adult life, we’ve woken up again and again determined to be rid of them.

On each occasion we fired them, there was a terrible mess to be cleaned up, a mess they had single-handedly created. They cooked the books one time, effectively falsifying the national accounts. On another they created a situation (remember the phone-tapping and all that?) where there was real reason to believe that An Garda Síochána was in danger of political corruption.

They came to power once on the basis of a claim that health cuts hurt the old, the sick and the handicapped. “There is a better way,” they said — and promptly cut thousands of beds from the health system.

And the last time, of course, they brought us, literally, to our knees. They presided over the most shambolic and disreputable collapse we have ever seen, and shamed our country with the loss of economic independence.

On each occasion we fired them, we put a government in place to clean up the mess that FF had created. And by and large, they were very good governments we chose instead. The mess was cleaned up, and at the same time a lot of progressive change was put in place. The people who went into government in those years — usually, although not always, Fine Gael and Labour — worked hard and honourably, and left significant marks.

But almost from the minute we fire Fianna Fáil, we seem to miss them. It’s as if they’re embedded in some part of our national psyche. Never mind the terrible state they left us in. Remember the SSIAs instead; the three continental holidays a year; the holiday homes wherever Ryanair landed, and the BMWs. Fianna Fáil brought us terrible times, but all we can remember is the good times.

When we’ve put them out of office, we immediately forget the Galway tent and the unhealthy relationships with bankers and builders and beef barons. Once again we start to see them fondly as the party of the little man, something they never were in my lifetime.

I’m reacting, of course, and I hope over-reacting, to the first opinion poll of the election campaign, which saw FF opening up a substantial lead. It may not mean an awful lot in real terms — the poll was essentially conducted before the Dáil was dissolved — but it does mean that psychologically, everyone else is chasing the game now. There’s loads of time to reel them in, but it’s going to take a significant political reset.

And the first week of the campaign itself hasn’t been encouraging. A taoiseach who was so cool and in command during the existential Brexit crisis has looked rattled and clumsy in the face of more recent events. They have been tragic events, and in one case an unspeakable crime shocked us all, but the government’s political response has been cack-handed.

I remember a minor political incident back in the early 1970s when Garret Fitzgerald — who at the time was known the length and breadth of the land as Garret the Good (as opposed to Charlie the shifty) — turned up at a public event wearing odd socks. When it was drawn to his attention, he explained that he often dressed in the dark in the morning, so as not to disturb his wife Joan, who suffered from a debilitating illness. “Isn’t that typical of Garret,” we all said, “how thoughtful and considerate he is.” Four years later, after a period in which Garret worked every waking hour as Taoiseach, he was spotted at a campaign event accidentally putting salt in his coffee instead of sugar. “Isn’t that typical of Garret,” we all said. “What a messer, what an eejit.”

More than 30 years ago that was my first insight, and I never forgot it, into what came to be seen as the political phenomenon of momentum. It comes and it goes. When you have it, your mistakes are forgiven. When you don’t, they’re magnified.

That’s why the government’s awkward and over-politicised response to the tragic death of a homeless man on the banks of the Grand Canal seemed to be summed up by the photograph of Eoghan Murphy’s campaign poster hanging high over the scene of the tragedy.

“Isn’t that typical of their insensitivity,” everyone said. Of course it was nothing of the kind — that is simply not the sort of thing anyone would do deliberately. But when I saw the picture, I thought of Garret putting salt in his coffee.

It’s not too late, of course. By the time the campaign is over, we may all have forgotten the first opinion poll. For now, the key task for campaign managers in all the parties is not to let their activists be fooled. Don’t be fooled into despair — that can easily happen — and don’t be fooled into complacency.

As a life-long participant in, and more recently watcher of campaigns, it seems to me that Brendan Howlin and Labour have had a very good first week. The Greens have had a very quiet week, in what ought really to be their time. Sinn Féin were heading towards a good week until a mad and uncontrolled councillor popped up. The Independents not so good, with the departure particularly of Finian McGrath. And the smaller parties have struggled to break through.

Micheál Martin has performed brilliantly in his first week. But apart from the history I’ve talked about already, he is going to be handicapped as the campaign goes on by an almost entirely anonymous front bench.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar being helped to put on a high visibility jacket ahead of a factory visit to the shop floor of Combilift in Annahagh, Co. Monaghan after launching the Fine Gael's general election campaign. (Liam McBurney/PA Wire)
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar being helped to put on a high visibility jacket ahead of a factory visit to the shop floor of Combilift in Annahagh, Co. Monaghan after launching the Fine Gael's general election campaign. (Liam McBurney/PA Wire)

NEVER mind the silly FG video trying to portray them as devoid of ideas, the truth is you wouldn’t recognise most of them if you met them in the street. I’ve heard of people going into government without a lot of experience — but it’s pretty rare to elect people to government who are entirely invisible.

The issues are beginning to crystallise. The terrible events of the first week have put gangland violence on the agenda, perhaps in a way that nobody was expecting. Housing and homelessness, and the overarching question of public services, may well be the defining, sustained issues this time. It may even be the case that in this election, it won’t be so much be a question of “the economy, stupid”. It might even be — and wouldn’t that be wonderful — “the society, stupid”.

I’ll write about this, and the other parties responses, in the next couple of weeks. Right now though, as the campaign revs up, it is the major party of government that is stuck with its rear wheels spinning. They’d need to get a bit of traction soon. If they don’t get their mojo back — and they can — they’re in for a hiding.

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