Electorate sends complacent Fine Gael a stark reminder

 

THE MOMENT the presidential prize slipped from Fine Gael’s grasp can be pinpointed to the afternoon of Saturday, July 9th, in the Regency Airport Hotel in Dublin.

That was when its electoral college chose Gay Mitchell as its candidate in preference to Mairead McGuinness and Pat Cox.

Mitchell had many attributes that made him a good partisan politician; but none made him electable as president. A potential president needs to prove themselves beyond reproach when it comes to honesty and credibility. Mitchell had no real difficulty on that front. His problem related to the more nebulous qualities of personality and aura. How can you define what kind of person can encompass the spirit, or reflect the wishes, of the people?

Perhaps, in the negative. And it was plain as a pikestaff to everyone, except to his colleagues of course, that Mitchell was not possessed of those attributes.

So who is to blame for this strategic blunder? The party leadership can only be partly scapegoated. In the round, the party’s 99 TDs and Senators have only themselves to blame. The parliamentary party held sway on the day of the selection, with more than 70 per cent of the voting weight allotted to them. The 94 who voted opted for Mitchell in big numbers. He won 40 votes, with McGuinness winning 30 and Cox 23. Only the councillors bucked the trend siding with McGuinness, ahead of Mitchell and Cox.

Mitchell’s vote was a mixture of true-blue party loyalists and the rump of “mutterers” and anti-Kennyites. Moreover, McGuinness and Cox were not regarded as “true believers”. Both had been parachuted in – Cox only weeks beforehand. Some residual resentment existed towards McGuinness from the party’s leadership battle the previous year. For traditionalists loyal to Kenny, Mitchell was seen simply as a party man and therefore the most suitable candidate.

Kenny remained agnostic, although others around him were arguing Mitchell was the wrong choice. Party strategist Frank Flannery had polling results to show that the Dublin MEP would have no purchase with the electorate, that candidates like Cox or McGuinness (both with greater charm, both perceived as slightly independent of Fine Gael) would have a greater reach.

This is where the criticism of Kenny and his advisers will lie, that they assumed the brand would carry the day irrespective of candidate. There were some within the party who argued that the Taoiseach should have shown ruthlessness. Sure, Mitchell’s act of loyalty in standing in the European elections in 2004 shored up Kenny’s leadership. But that was then. If Mitchell was to get anywhere, he needed to soften his image and appeal to voters outside Dublin. He was seen as too Dub and too sharp.

He told the story about his hard upbringing in Inchicore once too often and had to concede that Mary McAleese had already started an initiative on his “big idea” about suicide prevention. He never relaxed and became oversensitive: with Martin McGuinness; with people who told him to “smile”; and then with Pat Kenny on the Frontline. It was a tailspin and he only broke into double figures in one constituency – his old Dublin South Central power base.

But 6.4 per cent of the vote was humiliating by any standard. And the extent of how wounded the Fine Gael candidate felt was reflected in his decision not to appear for the final result.

To compound Fine Gael’s misery, it also took a hammering in the Dublin West byelection. It was never likely the party would win here, given the constituency profile. But as in the presidential election, the party can be accused of poor candidate selection.

Eithne Loftus did not have the dynamism or hunger of her rivals and made little impact outside her own Castleknock area.

She seemed the safest and least-threatening candidate to the party’s sitting TD Leo Varadkar. That should not have been the criterion for selection. Her 15 per cent return reflects badly on the party and on Varadkar.

The poor results will have relatively little repercussion for Fine Gael or for its leader in the longer term. It is too early in the Government’s life cycle. Bertie Ahern had a horrible 2003 but it had zero impact when voters returned him for a third term four years later.

The result will disabuse Fine Gael that its political dominance can be taken for granted, or that its ascendancy is attributable wholly to its achievements and not to a Fianna Fáil implosion.