GERARD HOWLIN: Government's postcard to those forgotten runs risk of being returned to sender

Denis Naughten plans to invest €30m of public money into An Post.

The real battleground for the next election is rural Ireland, and that’s power, writes Gerard Howlin.

THE Enda regime was as culchie as it comes, but, when it came to the crunch, it decisively got lost in the Ireland outside the M50.

Yesterday’s announcement from independent minister Denis Naughten of plans to invest €30m of public money into An Post before the end of the year has to be seen partly in that light.

Politics, after all, is about making choices.

The politics of An Post are predominantly rural, if paradoxically the company is national and its services almost as important everywhere. The local post office is specifically a rural issue.

Living in Dublin 7, I have watched with amusement recently a cack-handed attempt to scaremonger about a possible closure of the post office in Phibsborough. It was a Halloween banger that wouldn’t light.

There is the inconvenient fact that is isn’t closing, and there is the underlying fact that things are different in the city. It would certainly matter to some, mainly elderly people living nearby.

But it’s a prime spot and if the space came on the market there would be lattes and cinnamon buns served up in no time. Almost any other business would likely increase the footfall.

The post office in rural Ireland is different. There isn’t a café waiting to open in the same space. It’s possibly one of a few open businesses that give a place any sense of centre or community.

Naughten’s investment doesn’t specifically address the issue of rural post offices, as the bottom line is that increasingly there isn’t a living to be made selling stamps. His investment is about new services that seek to stabilise the company as a whole.

Separately, An Post is belatedly gearing up for a serious go at parcel delivery on a six-day week basis. This would put An Post and, by extension, small business in rural Ireland, into a burgeoning trade. It doesn’t address all the problems by any means, but it does show cause, which it is intended to do.

It is not an accident that Fine Gael went to Cavan for its annual conference this year. There is Brexit of course. There is also the fact that the party lost a seat in each of the border constituencies. From Donegal to Sligo/Leitrim, to Cavan/Monaghan and on to Louth, a Fine Gael TD was left behind on the field in each contest.

Fianna Fáil gained 23 seats nationally, and there is no sign yet that they will slip back. To the contrary, both main parties have made continuous incremental gains.

At just under 50% of the vote in the last election, together they are just over 60% in some opinion polls. There is a continual contest between then in rural Ireland especially. Fine Gael has a good election in Dublin, and electorally is maxed out inside the M50.

Unless Fianna Fáil has a bad day, it can only make gains there.

The battleground for the next election is rural Ireland, and that’s power. It is also part of the reason post offices are important. There are the specifics of course. Then there’s the politics.

If Enda’s Fine Gael was culchie to the core that was part of the paradox. The metropolitan set in the party never willingly embraced him before the crushed coup of 2010. When it counted in 2016, he couldn’t carry the country outside of Dublin with him. Leo Varadkar is as metropolitan as his predecessor wasn’t.

But his electoral test will be to regain enough of the nine seats lost in each of Munster and Connaught Ulster last year to stay ahead of Fianna Fáil, and reclaim the Taoiseach’s office.

Going to Cavan, investing in An Post and showing cause with communities who feel decidedly left behind, is what it is about.

In the end, it is how he and his candidates fare in Midleton and Bailieborough that will matter.

There is a paradox in Denis Naughten leading on An Post, on rural broadband and being a go-to minister in Government for rural Ireland. He is an independent, albeit from the Fine Gael gene pool. This is the lunch that Leo wants to eat — assuming as opinion polls indicate that Fianna Fáil can’t be pushed back to pre-2016 levels and indeed seen set for further gains.

At the last election, they won 17% of the first-preference vote, which, as Liam Weeks of University College Cork pointed out in How Ireland Voted 2016, was the highest tally for Idependents in any national parliamentary election in an established democracy since 1950. The economic crash before 2011 and the falling out between the electorate and both Fine Gael and Labour before 2016, contributed. But local issues count, especially for independent candidates. These are the fences the government, especially Fine Gael, has to mend. Investing in An Post has its own merits. Singling it out as one choice above others, signals clear awareness of electoral arithmetic.

Denis Naughten, of course, has no intention of being Leo’s lunch. If Fine Gael is to gain seats and Fianna Fáil won’t accommodate by losing them, then our world-class progeny of independents will be the losers.

The paradox which I referred to at the outset, is that in a future Dáil fairly evenly divided between two main parties who won’t coalesce, each surviving independent becomes proportionately more powerful. Investing in An Post and presumably the much larger investments to be announced next month in the capital plan is about building bridges back out over the M50, across the plains of Kildare and out to the towns that now dominate rural Ireland. Electorally, it is not farming but forms of suburbia that are as dominant in rural Ireland today.

The longer the Government lasts, and recovery continues the more opportunities it has if it takes them, to rebuild support. Events could overturn everything in an instant. But apart from the necessity of staying in for fear of being blamed as the ones who pulled out, time ironically suits both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. Fianna Fáil believes it has candidates who can outpace enough Fine Gael candidates on the ground, to help overtake the latter’s lead in opinion polls.

The contest, when it comes, will be over a larger share of the electorate, between the two main candidates. Independents will try to sustain extraordinary electoral achievement. Sinn Féin under a new leader, will try to reach out to new people.

The key battlegrounds will be rural towns and their hinterlands. Incumbent independents, in an economic recovery, will need either track record of delivery which is hard to have outside government, or a burning cause. That is why Naughten took the risk to go into office. The alternative strategy for them is to seize on local issues and latch them onto a broader sense of being forgotten locally. Yesterday’s announcement was a postcard to those forgotten. The Government and Denis Naughten will be hoping it is not returned to sender.

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