Parties need to be distinctive without unsettling Coalition

Labour’s disastrous performance in May disguised Fine Gael’s weaknesses

Frank Flannery: While his description of the Fine Gael campaign as one of the worst he ever saw drew most attention, his critique of how the party operates in Government was of more long-term interest. Photograph: Eric Luke

Frank Flannery: While his description of the Fine Gael campaign as one of the worst he ever saw drew most attention, his critique of how the party operates in Government was of more long-term interest. Photograph: Eric Luke

Mon, Jul 28, 2014, 01:00

There was a recent assumption among some in the Labour Party that, given the scale of its mauling in the local and European elections, it was the Coalition partner more deserving of some slack in Government.

However, Fine Gael’s poor local election performance, half disguised by its decent European result, has left TDs in the senior Coalition party acutely aware of their own weaknesses too.

It lost its position as the largest party at council level to Fianna Fáil and polled what by its standards in recent years was a dismal national figure of 24 per cent.

The criticisms made by former party strategist Frank Flannery at last week’s MacGill Summer School were all the more stinging because they were true.

While his description of the Fine Gael campaign as one of the worst he ever saw drew most attention, his critique of how the party operates in Government was of more long-term interest.

His charge that Fine Gael does “not govern with political intelligence” was somewhat evident in a memo drafted by Flannery, as well as general secretary Tom Curran and Mark Mortell, another senior adviser, for Enda Kenny just after the Coalition was formed.

Raw politics

In essence, it warned Fine Gael should not lose its identity in Government and needed to tend to its structures to ensure it never lost sight of the raw politics needed come election time.

There is some evidence Fine Gael realises that now.

The real challenge, for both Fine Gael and Labour, is to assert their own identities in the run up to the general election without allowing the business of Government descent into the crisis-a-minute mode which so dogged its last six months.

While it will be politically necessary for both to emphasise party approaches on certain issues, Fine Gael and Labour should not fall into the trap of prioritising short term tactical wins, with Coalition disagreements amplified into splits, in order to create dividing lines.

That approach was at its most evident in the months after the bailout, and the voters gave their verdict on it in May.

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