ALISON O'CONNOR: Government hits turbulence and Joan Burton seems to be waving goodbye

Kevin Humphreys, Joan Burton, and Aodhan Ó Riordain.

For Labour, it is hard to come to any conclusion other than it is tanking and needs a miracle now, writes Alison O’Connor.

Perseveration. It’s a term used to describe insistent repetition of a particular response such as a word, a gesture, or a phrase, and an inability to alter course from that.

I was introduced to the term recently, and it comes to mind now when I hear Taoiseach Enda Kenny repeating the mantra of “keeping the recovery going” and ditching the universal social charge (USC).

The concept was explained to me in terms of aircraft pilots, where they focus all their attention on a single task, such as landing, and once entangled in perseveration they do everything they can to succeed in that objective, even if it is dangerous and unsafe. When caught in such a brain freeze, a person will continue to do the same thing over and over, even though that path leads to the opposite of what they want. The notion has been studied in order to assist and alter pilots’ singleminded thinking at times of crisis, and keep the plane from crashing.

Enda Kenny
Enda Kenny

No more than attempting to land an aircraft, a Government attempting to convince people they are better off hanging on to them is fairly normal behaviour. However, the direction in which this general election campaign has been going means that you have to question if, in these times of turbulence, it is the smartest approach and needs modification.

There has been a variation of late, where the Cabinet members, led by the Taoiseach, have added a more warning note, telling the voters they would be very foolish indeed to turn their backs on the people who saved the economy. Listening to the tone of it, one would half expect Fine Gael to get one of those Irish Mammy tea towels made up with the phrase “On your own head be it”.

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How effective, you have to wonder, is it to communicate with the electorate almost as you would a teenager about to do something ill-advised: “Go ahead and do it if you want, but don’t come crying to me with your tail between your legs when things don’t work out for you.”

The overall truth is that no one knows what is going on politically just now, some of the best political minds that I know on all sides are scratching their heads in terms of assessing the failure of the Government to get traction for their oft- repeated message, and what they might do in the last week of the campaign to fix that. How could they possibly back away now, they wonder, from what Micheál Martin called at the debate night in Limerick the most expensive election promises ever, referring to the €4bn cost of abolishing the USC.

One of the main theories is that the Government shot itself in the foot with the contradiction of presenting itself as fiscally responsible, yet promising lots of lolly.

According to this line of thought the voters, in their wisdom, after all they have been through in the austerity years, are shocked.

Then there was the strong performances of the three younger party leaders in the Limerick debate: Stephen Donnelly of the Social Democrats, Richard Boyd Barrett of AAA/People Before Profit, and Lucinda Creighton of Renua. Mr Donnelly did particularly well. I think people were drawn to the sense of political vision presented by him, rather than the raw pounds, shilling, and pence argument. It really is ballsy of the Soc Dems to say we actually need to retain the USC in order to properly fund public services.

Following the debate, they were the name on all political lips as other parties wondered what it all meant, and how a surge of popularity for the Soc Dems could affect them on election day next Friday.

Stephen Donnelly of the Social Democrats
Stephen Donnelly of the Social Democrats

But the line of thinking that people want vision and long-term planning, rather than short-term money-in-pocket gratification, begs the notion that the Irish voter has matured enormously; that they are ahead of the Government in realising where the country should be taken in the long term. I’m really not so sure about that.

Perhaps they are simply sick of the sight of the people who they associate with economic pain, and even if they are some of the few experiencing signs of recovery, feel the memories remain too fresh and painful to be giving credit to the Government for what it is heralding as a massive achievement.

Publicly the politicians are all talking about the “great reception” they’ve been getting on the doorsteps, but I’ve also heard them speak about not seeing as many canvassing groups as normal for a general election when they’ve been out and about. Others, on the Fine Gael side, say the anger they encountered during the local election campaign is gone but that often in its place is apathy. That means they are walking away from a doorstep with no idea what way the household is going to vote.

On the Labour Party front, it is hard to come to any conclusion other than it is tanking and needs some sort of miracle to recover. Unlike the apathy faced by their Coalition partners, Labour are still coping with the anger of their own supporters, a bunch that seem to have extraordinarily high standards and little time for forgiveness. Tánaiste Joan Burton is under immense pressure, and her poor performance at the Limerick debate only added to that. She dealt well subsequently with the criticism of how she waves her hands,

Government hits turbulence and Joan Burton seems to be waving goodbye

How very telling it was, though, to see the two male colleagues who were on either side of her at the time she was being questioned on it by journalists, grab hold of one hand each as she once again went to gesticulate. Junior ministers Kevin Humphreys and Aodhain Riordain may have been laughing at the time, but it is a sign of how her party colleagues are panicked at their leader’s overall performance in this campaign.

There have been times over the past few years when I’ve written that the Government could do with the assistance of a good psychologist or therapist to advise on how to deal with the ire that the public was feeling towards them. As already mentioned, the outright anger is gone, but something else has taken its place and they simply can’t work out what.

Maybe now is to time to approach Dr Eddie from Operation Transformation for a little emotional translation? But they are determined to keep going with their current approach, believing people will opt for the promise of economic stability; landing that electoral plane in the manner they had planned, even if conditions have changed. We’ll have to wait another week to see if that approach means a crash or a safe landing.

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