FG Ard Fheis: Looking to stay on message and on course with low-key campaigning

Fine Gael is hoping for a low-key campaign, but things might be different on the doorsteps, says Political Correspondent Juno McEnroe

STABILITY, recovery, and growth. Expect these slogans to be stuffed into letterboxes, voiced over the airwaves, and repeated ad nauseam by Fine Gael in the weeks ahead.

With an election looming, the Fine Gael faithful met over the weekend, with leader Enda Kenny rallying the party grassroots and parliamentarians.

We learned little new at the two-day event at CityWest Dublin, but that was the plan. It’s about the message now and the ard fheis was primarily about putting Mr Kenny at the centre of that during his televised speech on Saturday night, one of the only times he won’t be surrounded in public by quizzing media before polling day.

“It’s going to be a low-key campaign, especially with the dark evenings which will be short. It will be fought on the airwaves and simple in message,” confided one minister privately.

In between coffees and talks on policy, election candidates smiled and did their best to seem interested. But they are eager to get the bit between their teeth, and many left directly after Mr Kenny’s speech on Saturday to return to constituencies.

So what’s different for Fine Gael since before the last general election? This time, instead of Kenny’s five point-plan, it’s about a three-point, sorry, three-step plan: To create more jobs, make work pay, and improve public services. But, as has been said, this will be no coronation for the Mayo man — despite many predicting he will likely be crowned Taoiseach once again.

Unlike the aftermath of the 2011 election where Fine Gael’s Brian Hayes said parties were fighting over “the carcass of Fianna Fáil”, the outcome of this election is relatively difficult to predict. Parties could end up carving up chunks of votes borrowed by Labour last time. With Labour’s support falling, the question now is how will Fine Gael make up the numbers for government if its intended coalition partner has been left with much fewer TDs.

Fine Gael’s Brian Hayes
Fine Gael’s Brian Hayes

Two polls last weekend highlighted Fine Gael and Labour’s predicament. The Red C poll saw Fine Gael fall by two points to 30%, while the Behaviour and Attitudes poll left the party unchanged at 31%. Labour was worse off, with the junior coalition partner with just 6%. A joint score of 36% would leave the coalition with just 57 seats, well short of that needed to control a new Dáil.

This is Kenny’s problem. Despite talking up changes that might emerge as the new year began and as pay packets tickened a little, this has not come to fruition.

Debate is now turning to what will happen now. The Taoiseach was quick to dismiss speculation at the weekend that Fine Gael has begun secret talks with Independent TDs about coalition options after the election.

As polling day draws closer, the unpalatable question though for Fine Gael will have to be addressed. Lacking the numbers for government, they will have to look at alternatives and the option of support from a number of Independent TDs or even a completely different alternative besides Labour. Other options are to go in as a minority government or with a small majority, likely leading to a very short-term administration.

Fine Gael TDs know this too. A number used the ard fheis to warn about this. Dublin South Central TD Catherine Byrne said there could be a second election in six months’ time.

Dublin South Central TD Catherine Byrne
Dublin South Central TD Catherine Byrne

Ministers, privately and publicly, are now realistic and concede Fine Gael and Labour will obviously not come close to the joint 113 seats or combined 68% of the vote last time.

Speaking to UTV Ireland, Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan said the outgoing coalition was more likely to just make the 50% mark.

“I believe on the day we will be in and around the 79 seats required to form the Government. I don’t believe there will be any surplus figures at the end of the day. The target will be to reach 79, that in itself will be extremely difficult,” he said.

Irish voters did their rioting and protest at the ballot box in 2011 by throwing out Fianna Fáil. The redrawing of constituencies, particularly in Dublin, the midlands and the mid-west, makes the outcome even less predictable this time.

Election slogans and statements about the future spilled out of CityWest on the weekend, as you would expect. The Fine Gael mantra of “let’s keep the recovery going” hopes to move on from the austerity that has haunted this coalition.

But voters are likely to remember the water charges, which brought support for the Government to an all-time low in 2014 in the mid-term local elections. The sense of injustice when medical card entitlements were taken off families, as a saving measure, will also not be easily forgotten.

Coupled with this is the sense of hubris which has hung around Fine Gael like a bad smell, especially during the garda whistleblower scandal as well as the way in which the former garda commissioner was dispensed with by the Taoiseach.

Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan
Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan

Mr Kenny, fond of an old blunder or two, will likely be shielded by his handlers during the election campaign and kept out of view and away from TV debates.

But Fine Gael, looking for that second term, will have to answer questions about the creaking health service, the housing crisis, homelessness and fresh concerns about the global economy.

Its promises to cut taxes, including the USC, have also been the subject of criticism and warnings from the European Commission among others.

Mr Kenny is hoping for a short election campaign, with the likely date to be announced next week. But he and Fine Gael can expect an awful lot of questions and frustrations as they bring their slogans and promises to the doorsteps of Ireland.

 

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