Daniel McConnell: Leo and Fine Gael walking toward crash in polls

Last Thursday night, I started getting picture messages from friends which showed a message from Paschal Donohoe, the Dublin Central TD and finance minister.

Daniel McConnell: Leo and Fine Gael walking toward crash in polls

Last Thursday night, I started getting picture messages from friends which showed a message from Paschal Donohoe, the Dublin Central TD and finance minister.

“I need your number 1 vote,” the leaflet contained in the picture messages screamed.

“Donohoe in trouble,” said one of the messages I received.

Fine Gael is in trouble and will lose this election, but for a true heavyweight like Donohoe to be nervous of his seat is an indication of just how far the party’s stock has fallen.

Readers of this column will not be surprised to say I am an admirer of Donohoe.

A rare commodity in Irish politics in that he has a brain, he is also simply one of the finest advocates of the art of politics this country has.

Much of the respect he garners in politics stems from the fact that in 2016, against all the odds, having lost two-thirds of his electoral base from devastating boundary changes, he kept his seat in a much reduced Dublin Central.

In a lesson to many, he eked out votes in Sheriff St and some of the Dublin inner city’s most impoverished areas where others would have simply ignored.

The retiring Michael Noonan confirmed this week our 2017 story that he wanted Donohoe to stand for the leadership of the party, only for Donohoe to refuse.

He showed remarkable strength and restraint in not engaging in a major giveaway budget last October ahead of this election, in a minority government, and will more than likely hand over an economy in rude health.

But, despite his best efforts, this time it is not working.

Donohoe, as director of elections for his party, has been a mainstay of Fine Gael’s campaign along with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tánaiste Simon Coveney.

At the start of the campaign, they sought to rely heavily on their record on the economy and Brexit, only for it to fall flat on its face.

They chose a campaign slogan which was as insipid as it was uninspiring, while also being too long.

“A future to look forward to” ultimately turned out to be a poor man’s reworking of Fianna Fáil’s iconic 2002 slogan: “A lot done, more to do”.

As opinion polls went against them and the Sinn Féin surge took hold, Donohoe, Varadkar, and Coveney were forced to change tack.

Recognising the mood for change, the party has been striving in recent days to paint itself as the real agent of change.

It pointed to the Eighth Amendment and marriage equality referenda (even though Labour drove the latter), Garda reform, and so on and so on to prove just how changey it is.

But it is not working.

In 2011, Fine Gael won 76 seats. In 2016, it won 50. In 2020, I predict it could win as few as 29.

Should that occur, Varadkar’s days as leader are over.

Once all the voting and counting are done, the recriminations will start and people will blame Fine Gael’s poor campaign for its defeat.

But in truth, the origins of its demise are far more fundamental.

Fine Gael has abandoned the middle class. In his first budget speech as finance minister, Donohoe referenced WB Yeats’ poem The Second Coming.

Yeats wrote: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

Donohoe turned this phrase around insisting the “centre must hold” and that it was incumbent on him and other centrist parties to make sure that it did.

Despite his best efforts, the middle classes in this country are slipping into extremes.

The children of the aged well-educated are now existing as an underclass.

Despite being highly educated themselves, they are locked out of the basic three elements of a functioning moderate democracy: Being able to own or rent your own home, having an adequate pension for your retirement, and job security.

The idea of a job for life rarely exists anymore for people outside the public sector.

Most people no longer have one career, they have two or three, and often with limited job protection and benefits.

Because of the disgraceful raiding of pension funds by the baby boomers, my generation and the snowflakes coming after me have no chance of an adequate pension for our retirement, meaning we will all have to work until we are 80.

Finally, and probably the most acute issue of the campaign: Housing.

I was lucky to have bought my house a decade ago (thanks to the bank of mum and dad as well) but I see many younger colleagues locked out of such an aspiration.

It is heartbreaking to hear the stories of people spending hours a day commuting, dropping kids off, in the dark, to creches for 12 hours, in order to allow them to earn a crust.

Why would you play by the rules and believe in the status quo if you are locked out of being a full participant in society?

One of the greatest sensations of becoming a father and a homeowner is that you are a fully invested member of the country.

You care when things go right and you care when things go wrong. Thousands of people are being denied their chance of experiencing that and they are not happy.

They are bloody livid, to be honest, and they see, for all its faults, Sinn Féin as a convincing agent of change.

The greatest defence against political extremism is a prosperous middle class, but around the world the middle class, for more than a generation, has been under attack.

Ireland is no different and Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil before them, allowed the middle class to wither on the vine.

Fine Gael is heading to the opposition benches, unless it decides to abandon its position on coalition with Fianna Fáil or Sinn Féin, and in truth it can have few to blame but itself for its defeat.

Through its own mismanagement, it threw away the 2016 election and has done the same again this time.

On seeking the Fine Gael leadership, Leo Varadkar’s big pitch to colleagues was that he was a vote-getter for the party, but he is on course to crash and burn.

He eschewed the calling of an election in 2017 and 2018 when he enjoyed a 10-point-plus lead over Fianna Fáil.

Had he gone then, he would be a taoiseach with his own mandate in charge of a majority coalition.

If the polls are to be believed, he is about to match or come close to Michael Noonan’s record defeat in 2002.

It all could have been so different.

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