Fine Gael’s key election messages never up for discussion

Campaign was controlled tightly despite the negative feedback from candidates

The campaign was going badly wrong but the key message was not up for discussion. After all, the focus groups continued to like it.

So began a conference call held between Fine Gael strategist Mark Mortell, the party's director of elections Brian Hayes, general secretary Tom Curran and the directors of elections in each of the 40 constituencies. It came two days after an opinion poll putting Fine Gael on 26 per cent rocked the campaign.

TDs had been feeding back into campaign headquarters, largely through Hayes, that the message of “let’s keep the recovery going” was proving to be a disaster.

Blunt warning

Yet the phone call, which - much to the chagrin of many candidates who saw their organisers peeled away from a valuable night’s canvassing – lasted two hours began with the blunt warning from Mortell and Hayes.


“They were really trying to sell this strategy that was pretty evident wasn’t working,” said one of those on the call. “They said the message would stay as it is and told us they had put it through focus groups and it was still working.

“They opened the call by saying the message wasn’t really on the table for discussion. We were instructed not to critique the message. There was talk of humanising the message but we would do it, not them. Which was ridiculous because we were on the door for about 10 seconds. People were pretty angry.”

Just days after an election which saw the party post a first preference vote of 25.5 per cent – a half percentage point below the opinion poll that shocked the campaign – the vast majority of people in the party are still angry.

That anger is largely directed at the tight group of people who devised, designed and ran the Fine Gael election campaign. Mayo TD Michael Ring dismissively labelled them a "Dublin 4" set of advisers, and their ears will be burning when the new Fine Gael parliamentary party meets tomorrow.

The election strategy committee, which met every day during the campaign, included Hayes, Mortell, Curran and advisers Mark Kennelly, Majella Fitzpatrick, Ciaran Conlon, Andrew McDowell and Terry Murphy.

It had responsibility for every aspect of the campaign, from the manifesto to the messaging to the constituency ground war. However, according to sources, it lacked a leader – there was no one person in charge.

“In 2011 it was clear who was in charge: it was Phil [Hogan],” said one TD. “It was not at all clear this time.”

As is almost always the case in politics, criticising the advisers around the leader is merely a proxy for criticising the leader himself. Taoiseach Enda Kenny will be aware that questions will soon be asked of him, and trouble will soon be at his door.

Others outside the strategy group, from Ministers down, are now critical of how tightly it controlled the election effort and how would not deviate from plans which had largely been in place since the election that wasn’t back in November.


“That is necessary with the manifesto, because it might leak,” said one source. “But the message should have been more widely discussed.”

The genesis of “Let’s keep the recovery going” is not precisely known, yet one source pointed out it had been in use by Kenny and others for months.

Undoubtedly it had been tested at focus groups, and it is understood that a more sober pitch of along the lines of securing the recovery was considered. The final phrase was picked because it was less controlled, less Fine Gael and more optimistic – more “keep her lit”.

Some put it down to the influence of Mortell above others, and point to his previous slogans like the “five point plan” and “sign the contract”.

“To see Cabinet Ministers, who are very intelligent, parrot a slogan like a wind-up toy is embarrassing,” said one party source.

Before they began toeing the party line, some Ministers expressed concern about the party’s offering, believing it to be too dry and economic with not enough focus on society.

Frances Fitzgerald is said to have pushed for pension increases to be included, lest the party lose the grey vote, and James Reilly, among others, also expressed concerns.

Some Ministers also complained they were not being used enough by headquarters during the campaign itself, although critics counter that heavy hitters such as Fitzgerald, Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney failed to step up to save the election for the party.

Those at the centre of the campaign say it is easy to indulge in post hoc rationalisation but TDs are now accusing those at the top of arrogance and complacency.


This arrogance was evident during the lead up to the campaign. One backbencher recalls overhearing a conversation a senior minister was having with a group of TDs in the Dáil bar, where the Minister predicted Fine Gael would take three seats out of four in

Cork East

, where it had two outgoing TDs.

In the event, Fine Gael took just one. David Stanton made it to the 32nd Dáil but Tom Barry, who lost out, yesterday called for Kenny's resignation as party leader.

Hayes, in particular, is coming in for criticism from deputies and candidates who believe he did not take their concerns seriously.

“Brian didn’t listen and he fed that arrogance at times,” said one, who also reserved particular ire for whomever advised Kenny to effectively shout through a speech during a Dublin rally on the campaign’s final weekend.

“We were trying to show humility and bring people back to us and here he was shouting on the news,” the deputy added.

“I felt like throwing the television out the window.”

Whatever about throwing televisions, the new parliamentary party will tell Kenny how it feels about the Fine Gael campaign when TDs meet in Dublin tomorrow.

It will likely be a precursor to Kenny being told what they think about his leadership.