Una Mullally: Do most people really care who the next Fine Gael leader is?

Fine Gael must beware not to look like a jaded band obsessing over a new lead singer while the audience has already left the gig

The difference between Leo Varadkar’s relationship status and Simon Coveney’s: is it important?  Photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins

The difference between Leo Varadkar’s relationship status and Simon Coveney’s: is it important? Photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins

 

I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but do most people really care who the next Fine Gael leader is? Do they have extraordinarily strong feelings about who takes over as taoiseach? I reckon most people want someone who puts the head down and does a decent job. There is a general feeling of stagnancy to this Government, the result of its clunky make-up, and the increasing number of sideshows aren’t doing it any favours.

This current leadership “contest” has dragged on longer than a tribunal. But please, in the coming weeks months, can we be saved from trivialities? There is an inevitability to the tedium of the coverage of the leadership contest. How much will be about personality and made-up criteria, and how much will actually be about the proposed new Fine Gael leaders’ ideologies, politics, vision, and ideas? And which focus would serve us better? How is it preferable to speak about our politicians?

It’s easier to write about personalities. It’s harder to make issues land. But this is not soap opera, and the public remains resolutely issue-focused. There’s the housing crisis, which encompasses homelessness, a rental sector not fit for purpose, repossessions, and yet another housing market bubble; there’s a creaking health service and its multifaceted scandal of trolleys and waiting lists; there’s the outrageous Maurice McCabe affair and goings on in the Garda Síochána, there is the continuing gangland violence issue. People want answers, they want action, they want to know that these things are being handled.

When it comes reporting on political contests, election coverage in print media has improved somewhat. There is an acknowledgment that focusing on the horse race over the issues is less helpful. Issue-focused reporting improves public discourse and public knowledge. Yet the leadership contest is a distraction from the job of government. It is a party issue, not a public one. Fine Gael and the contenders for leadership must be careful, as their poll numbers continue to slide, not to come across as a jaded band obsessing over a new lead singer while the audience has already left the gig.

On Tuesday, the Irish Independent published a column about the difference between Leo Varadkar’s relationship status and Simon Coveney’s. On Wednesday, it followed it up with another column about why Varadkar having a partner or not “mattered”. Leaving aside the fact that this would not be a topic of discussion if Varadkar wasn’t gay, that kind of personality-focused journalism is cheap and trite. It tells us nothing about the qualifications and qualities of potential leaders. We’re quite lucky in Ireland that the personal lives of politicians by and large remain private, and unless there is something extraordinary, illegal or massively hypocritical going on that is genuinely of public interest, they should remain private.

I’d wager most people would find it hard to pick Fionnuala Kenny, for example, out in a crowd, and that’s a good thing. There is no such thing as a First Lady here. Newspapers, and certainly broadcast media, tend to keep the gossip off the pages and the airwaves. Judging the merit of a politician based on who they are or aren’t in a relationship with is ridiculous.

A more serious example of how the actual reporting of an issue itself can slide off course from the issues to a more personalised focus, was recently seen in the coverage of the Maurice McCabe affair.

There has been some brilliant reporting on the McCabe issue, exemplified by Katie Hannon and Mick Clifford. There have also been politicians who have pursued this issue day after day for years, exemplified by Mick Wallace and Clare Daly. So why then, as the scandal was unfolding, did politicians and media step away from the issue and focus instead on a timeline of which politicians said and knew what and when?

It certainly felt that more airtime was given to this than to the actual issue of an alleged smear campaign against McCabe and how that seems to have come to pass in such an apparently terrifying way. While the ensuing political events were bungled, re-enforcing an aura of unprofessionalism around this government, and acting as a catalyst for Enda Kenny’s upcoming departure, they are certainly secondary to whether or not there was a broader conspiracy to undermine McCabe and therefore a broader threat to our democracy itself.

Our media can often focus in on minutiae, which, while important, also need a bigger-picture context kept to the fore too.

Newspapers and current affairs radio programmes often mistake what the public is interested in with what journalists are interested in. Media analysts focus on the superficial “performance” of a politician as opposed to the content of what they’re saying or doing. So, as the jockeying for authority in Fine Gael continues, if we want decent discourse, if we want informed debate, it is the job of politicians themselves and the media to take a step back and realise what’s really important.

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