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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: February 2, 2011 @ 12:27 pm

    Lord let me save the country… but not yet

    Harry McGee

    I’ve just come from the launch of the Fianna Fail campaign.  Micheal Martin  has got off to a flying start and put in a (unsurprisingly) smooth and agressive performance this morning. 

    There were two lines that stood out and will be carried by most of the media for the rest of the day.

    The first was his descripton of a Fine Gael and Labour merger as a ‘tug-of-war’ coalition.

    The second was his claim that Labour has lost its nerve.

    Labour has certainly flip-flopped on its 48 per cent tax rate and its commitment to reduce the national deficit.

    Its rivals say its candidates were getting it in the neck on the doors from both sides.

    On the one hand in the leafier suburbs (and Labour gets more ABC1 support than anybody else in Dublin) people were complaining about higher taxes would crucify them. And on the other, Labour signing up to reduce the deficit to 3 per cent by 2015 wasn’t going down well because a certain constituency equate that with acquiescence with the IMF-EU bailout.

    I have an analysis piece in this morning’s paper (find it here) looking at Labour’s electoral prospects. I made the point in it that it is  vulnerable to a Fianna Fail resurgence (if one happens), to Sinn Fein gains and also to smaller left-wing alliances. The party is still doing well but seems to have lost a bit of lustre in recent weeks.

    Still, it’s a long campaign and with so much voter volatility (I’d say half of the electorate have reached make-your-mind-up-time) there’s so much to play for.

    Fianna Fail are in a strange position. There was a great article in the New York Times a few months ago explaining the psychology of “defensive pessimism”.

    If you’re in a race and hanging around the start-line and you look around at the other runners or cyclists, it can be intimidating. They look, well, fitter and stronger than you. You begin saying to yourself: ‘Oh oh, I’m going to become a cropper here. I’ll be beaten up a stick here and finish last.”

    And then when you begin running, you realise that you are not doing as badly as you thought. You begin to overtake others and suddenly you feel good about yourself.

    John S Raglin, a sports psychologist at Indiana University, explained to the newspaper that defenisve pessimism consited of downplaying your ability and expectations. That way, if you perform badly you don’t feel too bruised.

    “If you do better than expected, you get his payoff,” he explained.

    In other words, a pessimist is never disappointed. And so it is with Fianna Fail. Mickey Joe refuses to say how many seats he expects the party to win. He doesn’t want to make himself a hostage to fortune.

    If the party perform as per the opinon polls and is routed, well there was little he could do to turn it around in such a short time span. If they get a Mickey Joe bounce, then well and good… it was all down to that old Turner’s Cross magic.

    He got off to a good start last week. In the North we had talks about talks. Here one of the dominant themes of the first week of the campaign was the debate about debates.

    It is obvious that Fianna Fail is going to fight the election in attack mode. I suspect that they won’t be alone in this.  Fine Gael seem to be staying a little more aloof than other parties at present. But if the party continues to open the gap with its rivals, I think it won’t be long before it will be dragged into the mire.

    The other party that will find itself being challenged to step outside will be Sinn Fein. Five years ago the party was clueless about finance and the economy. Clueless to the extent that none of its representative would have been capable of distinguishing between monetary and fiscal policy.

    Since 2007, Arthur Morgan has shored up this area, though he himself would have admitted he was not an expert.

    And the party did put in a substantial amount of work for its pre-Budget submissin.

    But having acknowldged all that, its pre-Budget document is for the birds. It seeks to raise an additional €4 billion in taxes, including a wealth tax, with only about €500 million in cuts. And most of those cuts are directed at reducing wages in the public sector to a maximum of €100,000 for everybody.

    And that aim  in itself is a legitimate and commendable aspiration for any political party. But Sinn Fein reaches for the populist card on every ppssible occasion , with no proposals for any cuts in any other area of the public sector. Sure the fat cats need to have their wages slashes. But that in itself isn’t enough. There are inefficiencies, waste, overlap, duplicationk, inertial, indolence and petrification in the public sector that needs to be tackled. Every other party recognises that it needs to be leaner and meaner. Some of their financial proposals are barmy.

    It is obvious Sinn Fein will get nailed by others when they try (or more probably don’t try) to explain where they will get the money to keep the country running after telling the IMF to go take a running jump.

    The likelihood is it won’t try. There’s an angry none-of-the-above constiuency out there (blue collar workers and unemployed younger males in particular) who will be attracted by the Sinn Fein message. That party’s task is to mobilise this cohort who don’t vote.

    Speaking of  None of the Above.

    The first unmistakable trope is that there are more independents and there is potential for more independent seats than even 2002 when there were 14.

    The second is that the obvious disillusionment with politics and with the political system we have was ripe for exploitation by a new movement. In that context, the fall of Democracy Now before it even had a chance to rise was a fascinating spectacle.

    One of the great things about writing a blog like this – or sticking your toes into the icy water that is Twitter – is that you have the unique pleasure of being branded as an establishment stoogie (plus many other wonderful things) by many people.

    One of the lazy observations thrown out there is the ‘plague on all your houses’ castigation of politicians.

    I’m not going to revisit my own view in any detail here  save for the main bullet points.

    Dail is too big. Seanad shouldn’t be there. A bit too much clientilism. More sitting days. Rebalancing of parliamentary power needed. Really big problem is local. Abolish county councils (but that will never ever happen). Stronger regional authories etc.

    On the other side of the coin. Politicains aren’t lazy or useless. It’s a really hard life. You put your whole career up for the chop every few years. Most are motivated by public service not personal gain. Yes, they feathered their own nests unforgivably during boom years. But corrections have taken place. Politicians suitably disciplined. Ministers need to take further big drop in salary.

    List system argument has been moronically thrown out there. Who picks the list? Potentially corrupting. How do you handle two-track approach – the elites elected by lsit at national level and yokels elected at local level. Scottish experience shows it doesn’t work that well. And politicains should be allowed to represent their regions at national level. If they don’t who will? I don’t agree with the elite view that very clever and very special people like themselves (with expertise in areas) should be allowed waltz in and run the country.

    You must remember that a couple of years ago there were opinion writers arguing that the likes of Sean Fitzpatrick should be brought in to save the country. This seems axiomatic but it is quite true. To succeed in the world of politics you need to be a politician. By that I mean, you have to be possessed of political skills; have a sense of public duty; have an innate understanding of human psychology and and ‘feel’ for teh general aspirations and expectations of the population; to be a people person without necessarily being an extrovert.

    My main point has been this. A lot of the criticism has missed the point. There has been an unhealthy focus on the political system. The thesis has been that if you fix the system, you will fix everything. Or if you elect self-appointed gurus like David McWilliams, Shane Ross or Eamon Dunphy, everthhing will turn out rosy.

    That is naive and wrong. No matter how much you alter the system, you still need a Government to effect decisions. The problems we have experienced over the past couple of years haven’t been  about systems. They have happened because Fianna Fail-led Governments made wrong decisions and weren’t brave or bright enough to recognise that it would all unwind and that corrective action was necessary..

    Eamon Dunphy’s vapid interviews on John Murray’s show and the Eleventh Houre, where he casually derided people for electing gombeen politicians, demonstrated that – well meaning and all that it was – Democracy Now was a kite that could never fly.

    What sacrifice has Eamon Dunphy ‘t made to better the pulbic weal? Well, erm, none.  He seemed to present being a working journalist as some kind of act of public service and massive sacrifice on his part. It is neither. Being a journalist and commentator (and I know because I am one) gives you the best of both worlds – all the power and none of the responsibilty.

    Dunphy would not last a week in politics. His bubble is like that of George Lee. Allowing him enter politics because he is a pundit (and not a particularly good one) is like allowing him to take over the running of Liverpool FC because he is a soccer pundit. His casual branding of most politicians as clowns was particularly poignant for me because it came from one of the biggest clowns in the business.

    Journalists and  commentators are like merchant bankers. There is no down side. There is always a bonus.  Some of those who were the most enthusiastic cheeleaders of the Cetic Tiger are among the shrillest critics now.  Some of the flip-flopping has been outrageous.

    But the test, the real test, was: would they put their money where their mouth was? And the answer ultimately was no. With the exception of Shane Ross (who is a politician anyway) and Paul Somerville, the other members of the the righteous and outraged fraternity, donned the parachutes. But when the moment came to jump out of the plane, they bottled it.

    • Kathleen Funchion was a good example last night of SF working through a pre-canned line about what to do next once they have burned all of the NPRF just to plug the deficit in 2011. Apparently, we also burn the bondholders completely but then look to borrow more money off them and we recapitalise the banks with the money from the NPRF that we have already allocated to closing the deficit. I think the line needs some work.

      As for lists and electoral reform I outlined a relatively simple approach that would allow for more diverse candidate slates without having party lists that would be the play thing of party insiders and HQ. Needless to say what with I not being a former AG it got all the attention that digging a hole in quicksand would. I still think it is a practical solution to a real problem. Oh and I had another idea in the same piece to reduce the impact of clientelism.


    • robespierre says:

      Flash the canines Harry – you are well and truly off the fence!

      A lot of the names mentioned were involved with Ireland for Europe but were accompanied by the nous of Pat Cox who wouldn’t be over the moon about the anti-EU populism that has been spouted by Dunphy, Ross and McWilliams. It is easy to be a hurler of the ditch or to hurl up outside niteclubs. Harder doing the analysis of arid legal text for committee stage amendments of legislation and listening to constance complaints from the hoi poloi.

      So far the campaigning has been quite enjoyable. I’d say the reception is about 30-40% anger in any direction / you are all the same etc. This has been most prevalent with people over 55.

      Debate has been the order of the day and a lot of people do have questions. They don’t trust Labour on the public sector (unless they are public sector) and worry about their taxes. They don’t seem to like FF that much but then we all know that FFers find it hard to fess up let alone vote elsewhere. SF are still somewhat toxic and are as you say going to come from areas of privation. The simple message with FG has been that they like the policies and a number of the front bench spokespeople but they simply can’t wear Kenny. The constituency I am canvassing in has some high profile Independents and they haven’t really featured at all so far.

      It is all to play for. Que la fete commence…

    • Sean Heffernan says:

      Do you happen to have any thoughts re The United Left Alliance? Read on the internet, people in the ULA calling for it to be included separately in the opinion polls, instead of being lumped in with ‘others’ what do you think??

      How do you think the ULA will do?

      Mick Murphy is running as the ULA candidate, and someone supporting him knocked on my sisters house last night, so that got me thinking..

    • I don’t think DN failed over money – the donations seemed to already be uncomfortably large. I also disagree that the focus on reform has been undue or unhealthy for two reasons. First, because clientelism distorts the national objective in favour of short-term localised issues; and second because we don’t actually need a Government to effect decisions. Read John Bruton’s critique of our current system – the parliament is a distraction, and the executive is merely an execution arm of the civil service.

      What we need is leadership. That is what the political system should be able to give us. Democracy Now could have given us that, though the political naivete of the group was evident. We need people who we respect and empathise with. The DN was that. The current political elite is not.

    • Conor Sullivan says:

      Really enjoying these blog posts Harry, more please!

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