Fine Gael preaching to the mostly converted
A call for Enda Kenny to lead from the front draws applause at FG meeting, writes Harry McGee
(From left) Martin Heydon TD, Anthony Lawlor TD and Richard Bruton TD at a Fine Gael meeting on Thursday on the referendum to abolish the Seanad.
Fine Gael has succeeded in flipping Paddy Hillery’s famous exhortation to a Fianna Fáil Árd Fheis a generation ago: “You can have Boland but you can’t have Fianna Fáil.”
As far as this referendum goes for the main Government party it has become a case of: “You can have Fine Gael but you can’t have Enda Kenny”.
The refusal of the Taoiseach to debate has become one of the recurring themes of the referendum campaign – or in political parlance, a straw man erected by his rivals to be knocked down again. If the referendum is defeated, commentators will surely point to it as a possible determining factor. That is the political risk Fine Gael has taken by refusing all invitations.
In the meantime, we have Fine Gael. And that comes mainly in the person of Minister for Jobs and Enterprise Richard Bruton, low-key, sincere, indefatigable and committed. Bruton is Fine Gael’s campaign director. Usually this is a case of organising and pulling the strings, as Fianna Fail’s Niall Collins is doing. But for Bruton it has meant taking on a player-manager role with he and Meath East TD Regina Doherty doing virtually all of the media appearances for Fine Gael. Solid as he is, he is still not the leader of the party.
Fine Gael’s formal campaign has relied on a nationwide leafleting campaign, a de rigeur social media presence, as well as ‘public meetings’ around the country. Fine Gael has been holding these events most nights since the campaign started. If your image is of a packed teeming town hall meeting with both sides slugging it out, dispel it immediately. Think well-mannered Fine Gael constituency organisation with a few stragglers. Kenny himself has gone to a few but Bruton has been ever-present.
They are not fully public though. Fergal Keane of RTE was not allowed record the meeting in the well-to-do Dublin suburb of Killiney earlier this week. Even though this has been billed as Fine Gael bringing its message to the people of Ireland, the very modest attendances of mostly Fine Gael activists hardly suggest broad reach or widespread appeal.
But then again, not all Fine Gael members (and that includes a fair smattering of TDs and Senators) share Kenny’s view that this is a good idea. While these are essentially party events, not everybody is ‘on message’.
On Thursday night in a hotel on the outskirts of Clane, Co Kildare some 35 people gathered in an upstairs room, of which only one identified herself as not a Fine Gael member. Bruton was joined by local TD Anthony Lawlor and by Martin Hayden, the TD from neighbouring Kildare South.
All three gave short summaries of the main arguments underlying the Fine Gael campaign, with Bruton impressive on detail about how other comparator countries like Norway, Sweden and New Zealand have prospered after ditching second chambers.
The success of those countries, he said, showed the arguments of the No camp were “seethroughable”.
The questions were not as soft as expected. A few questioned the basis of the €20m annual savings, and Bruton pointed to the source which is the Oireachtas Commission. Of course, the permanent staff attached to the Seanad won’t get fired but will be redeployed. That, Bruton said, was still a saving.
Somebody from the back then asked Bruton to give five reasons to abolish the Seanad. He did that patiently (a flawed electoral system; one chamber is best practice internationally; Seanad has very limited powers; public will be involved in suggesting new laws in new system; in a recession Dail needs to be protected but Seanad is not really a core institution).
“There’s a sixth reason, absenteeism by Senators,” piped up a man wearing a red pullover, referring to a recent survey of attendance in the Upper chamber.
The curved ball came at the end from another man in the audience. “I find it very strange and irritating as a member of Fine Gael,” he said, “that Enda Kenny, as leader of the Government, has refused to debate the issue.
“As leader he should lead from the front. It’s simple. There are no minefields and nothing hidden. I don’t understand why he doesn’t.”
That got the only spontaneous round of the applause of the night, showing the refusal has caused unease among the grass roots of Fine Gael. Bruton gamely riposted that the referendum was not a personality contest. But that’s perhaps one of the reasons for the lack of public engagement. Inevitably, if the referendum is lost, it will be the first reason seized upon by Kenny’s critics.