Can we overcome belief that FF has a right to power?

Tue, Jan 19, 2010, 00:00

Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore need to convince the public of the radical policies they intend to put forward, writes ELAINE BYRNE

THE RETURN of the Dáil today marks the inauguration of a decade which will commemorate the 100th anniversaries of the 1916 Easter Rising, the seminal 1918 election, the first Dáil and the commencement of the War of Independence. One hundred years later and the national question is no longer one about the fight for political independence, but economic freedom.

The gross cost to the exchequer of the banking crisis is estimated at €80 billion when the recapitalisation, nationalisation and Nama-isation of the banking sector are taken into account. The “Ireland after Nama” academic website estimates that there are more than 300,000 vacant houses in ghost estates. Defaults on EBS mortgages are up 487 per cent over the last year. There are 130,000 more people unemployed than this time last year.

These are not ordinary times and demand extraordinary responses.

Will Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore satisfy a public demand for Obama-esque leadership? The 2009 local and European elections results suggest Fine Gael, now the largest party in the State, and Labour, with its best ever elections in its history, are destined for government.

The striking aspect of the four-part Taoiseach series on TV3 is how few men made so many big decisions which shaped the character of the Irish state. Just 12 men have held the highest political office in the 88 years since Independence. Fine Gael and its precursor, Cumann na nGaedheal, has been in power for 29 of those 88 years and has always depended on partnership with Labour to enter government.

Kenny and Gilmore are both west of Ireland men born in the 1950s with long years of political experience punctuated with a brief two-year spell in ministerial office. These two men are tasked to remove a party which has enjoyed power for 19 of the last 23 years. One of them will become the (lucky?) 13th person to hold the levers of power.

I was three years old when Fine Gael and Labour were last elected to government in 1982. There is a generation out there that assumes Fianna Fáil have a permanent right to uninterrupted power. This is the third extended period of Fianna Fáil-led government that Irish democracy has witnessed. This assumption has induced a political variation of Stockholm syndrome, the psychological response by kidnap victims who become sympathetic and loyal to their kidnappers. Hostages adopt this basic survival strategy because a prolonged familiarity with the hostage takers induces the prisoner to adopt the captor’s mindset.

I can only assume then that Ryan Tubridy is a casualty of Fianna Fáil syndrome. His interview with Enda Kenny on Friday’s Late Late Show missed the point entirely. Who cares if Kenny likes Bertie Ahern or not? Or whether or not he would have a pint with Brian Cowen? That personality type politics and limited media mindset has us where we are.

Tubridy noted that the current Fianna Fáil cabinet has 102 years of combined experience while the Fine Gael frontbench has an inexperienced 11. At this crossroads, Tubridy suggested, perhaps the public would prefer the government they knew. On that narrow logic, no government should ever have the indignity of being voted from office.

Barack Obama was inaugurated as American president a year ago tomorrow. Economic uncertainty demands that his style of leadership, as is enduringly the case in the American presidential system of politics, is more chief than chairman. These expectations have also been placed on Irish politicians. Tubridy’s line of questioning suggested what many Irish people believe: that Kenny is not Taoiseach material and that Gilmore is the better parliamentary and media performer.

Maybe, though, financial instability now demands that we recalibrate how we analyse politics. For instance, if the public accepts that Kenny and Gilmore’s desire to remove Fianna Fáil from power is warranted, then the public must become more familiar with the distinct and divergent approaches of both parties on key policy areas such as public sector reform, taxation policy and the banks.

Both parties are united on the need to have a banking inquiry and share fundamentals within their respective policies on a universal health insurance plan. However, the party of centre-right has declared its intention to form a much closer relationship with the British Conservative party following Kenny’s meeting with David Cameron in the House of Commons in 2007. The party of the centre-left has renewed confidence in advance of its centenary in 2012.

Is too much emphasis placed in Ireland on party leadership? The joint TCD-UCD Irish National Election Study 2002-2007 found that a third of respondents said a candidate was more important to them than party, and that they would have voted for the same candidate if that candidate stood with a different party. Another third stated that party was more important and would not follow the candidate to a different party.

Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore need to convince both their own membership and the wider public of the radical policies they intend to put forward in the next year. The Fianna Fáil party may be low in the polls but the stubborn permanence of Fianna Fáil syndrome is another matter entirely.