An attack as subtle as a ton of bricks
I am sure of one thing. Fine Gael’s coordinated attack on Martin McGuinness over the past two days will have two effects. Number One. Martin McGuinness’s support won’t go down. Number Two. Gay Mithcell’s support won’t go up.
One of the most commented-on moments of the 2007 General Election was Michael McDowell’s act of martyrdom. He cruelly exposed Gerry Adams’s woeful grasp on economics in the leadership debate and kiboshed Sinn Fein’s hopes of seat gains (the party ended up with one seat less). Of course, McDowell’s mission was, politically, a kamikaze one for him and his own party.
My own sense is that Fine Gael’s replay of exercise does not follow the 2007 example neatly, or at all. It’s a different kind of election and Martin McGuinness is a different personality to Adams; less remote and aloof, possessed of more personality and charm. In addition, the attack is not based on competence; it’s based on character.
The attacks yesterday from Phil Hogan and Paul Kehoe were crude. Hogan’s branding of McGuinness as a terrorist is going to have repercussions. At Fine Gael’s launch today, Enda Kenny is going to have to stand with Hogan or deny him in his characterisationof McGuinnness as a terrorist. There’s no twin-track approach here where you get other people to go out to look after the dirty tricks departmennt while erecting some kind of Chinese walls to stay aloof from the controversy.
If Kenny agrees with Hogan that McGuinness is a terrrorist, that has the potential to poison the well of North-South relations. It’s wholly legitimate questioning McGuinness’s past, all those gaps, and his implausible claim that he left the IRA in 1974. But describing him, in the present tense, as a terrorist in the Aras is different and a very serious charge for a senior Minister of the ruling Government to make.
As Government ministers, the likes of ‘Hulk’ Hogan and Kehoe need to be a bit more temperate in their language. I don’t believe McGuinness will win but he may very well have the potential to beat Gay Mitchell in first preferences. Fine Gael need to mobilise its vote and get out its core support. Anything else will be a bellyflop after its spectacular success in February.
I’m not saying we need to airbrush history or euphemise McGuinness’s past. Anything but. But a Government party making snide and unsophisticated attacks like that isn’t going to get them anywere. If the party attacks McGuinness, it has to be on facts or events, to show contradictions in his accountds or a hypocrisy on his part. That’s how McDowell was so effective in 2007. He exposed the weaknesses and failures. Broad brush-stroke insults are going nowhere.
The effect will be the opposite of what’s intended. It will keep McGuinness at centre stage. It will elicit him some sympathy. Will it bolster Gay Mitchell’s support? I just don’t think so.
It also highlights another phenomenon of Irish politics. Presidential elections are the nastiest of them all. All the parties open the cage and let out their dirty tricks[ departments. Some (and we’re not talking FG here) are more subtle than others. Look at the precedent. Fine Gael making a liar of Brian Lenihan senior in 1990 over a phone call to the Aras. Pee Flynn nastily casting aspersions on the state of Mary Robinson’s marriage. Mary McAleese being described as a “tribal time-bomb” by Eoghan Harris in 1997. And Adi Roche’s campaign disravelled partly because of her naivety and inexperience – but partly because of lots of subterranean spinning against her on her record as a boss and because of an obscure case involving her brother.
It all makes for an intriguing campaign.