How Fine Gael lost the 2016 general election
Enda Kenny ends the year in government, despite his party’s election strategy
Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Fianna Fáil Leader Micheál Martin during the last television debate on RTÉ’s Prime Time before the election. Photograph: Tony Maxwell/PA Wire
The political landscape as Ireland approached this year’s general election was almost unrecognisable from the stolid certainties that have characterised much of our history.
Fianna Fáil was a shadow of its former self. Labour faced a showdown with voters that some party members feared could destroy them. Fine Gael had replaced Fianna Fáil as the largest party. However, it approached the election not confident in its new status but wondering how it could best contain inevitable losses. It waited, increasingly impatiently, for its fortunes to recover. Momentum was with the insurgent forces: Independents, the radical left, Sinn Féin and a scattering of new parties and groups. Never had the politics of the Republic looked so fractured and uncertain.
So how did the parties approach the campaign, and what were the strategies that would win – and lose – the general election?
Fine Gael approached the election from an unfamiliar starting point: government, opposition; as the largest party, not the challenger; and as the favourite, not the underdog. But the general structure of its approach was consciously similar to the elections of 2007 and 2011. Although the party had been heavily defeated in the local and European elections of 2014, its chiefs were not unduly worried. These were, they concluded, the customary trials of the biggest party, governing in a time of austerity. “I wouldn’t say we were spooked,” a senior party figure says. “Spooked would be a bit strong. We anticipated a wallop, and it was worse than we expected.”
In December 2014 senior officials and politicians met at the Shelbourne Hotel, on St Stephen’s Green in Dublin, to begin preparations for the next general election. A national strategy committee, chaired by Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald, had four subcommittees: organisational, chaired by the deputy leader at the time, James Reilly; candidate selection, chaired by the MEP Brian Hayes; communications, chaired by Minister for Health Leo Varadkar; and policy, headed by Simon Coveney.
Aside from the politicians the most important figures were, as ever, the general secretary, Tom Curran; the long-term party adviser Mark Mortell, a public-relations expert at FleishmanHillard; and the Taoiseach’s chief of staff, Mark Kennelly, and chief policy adviser, Andrew McDowell. The goal was to have the campaign ready to go by the end of the following summer.
In order to craft an election message that they hoped would resonate with their target voters Fine Gael strategists looked at masses of research. As the largest and best-resourced party its material was broad and deep, including quantitative polls (both published and private), qualitative work through focus groups, and constant feedback from the public and members. The findings of commissioned research were kept to a limited group. “We researched it to death,” one strategist says.
Strong themes were obvious from the beginning. The success in creating jobs – the “jobs-led recovery” – was a core Fine Gael strength, they judged. In addition both their own polls and regular polling by Red C for the Sunday Business Post found that strong majorities of the public believed the country was on the right track – frequently a harbinger of electoral fortune for an incumbent government.
Analysis from the party’s US political consultancy, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, amplified this hope into an expectation. Backroom people, TDs, ministers, journalists: they all dropped the old Bill Clinton slogan that “It’s the economy, stupid” into practically every conversation. It became a dogma – and ultimately it prevented Fine Gael from properly analysing its own flaws.
The rapidly changing fiscal and economic situation dominated party thinking during the crucial months of 2015 when it was deciding its campaign strategy and the central principles of its political marketing.
As the recovery took hold, with its obvious benchmarks of job creation, falling unemployment, rising incomes and returning consumer confidence, the party resolved that the single most important issue in voters’ minds would be protecting the recovery. It came up with a stability-versus-chaos narrative. “The proposition we offered was continuity,” says Mortell, perhaps the party’s most important political and communications strategist. That continuity found its purest expression in the slogan “Let’s keep the recovery going”.
There was another event that Fine Gael strategists were watching closely in the first half of 2015. In the UK David Cameron’s Conservative Party was seeking re-election after five years of coalition with the Liberal Democrats, five years that had seen austerity policies followed by an economic recovery. The Fine Gael backroom staff didn’t have to look very hard to see the parallels.
When Cameron returned with a shock majority, Fine Gael’s interest in the Tory campaign turned into a desire to emulate its success. Senior staffers travelled to London to pore over the entrails of the Conservatives’ victory and speak to the people who made it happen. They hired as consultants Craig Elder and Tom Edmonds, the people who had run what is believed to have been a highly effective digital campaign for the Tories. The pair came to Dublin to give staffers a two-day seminar.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny also told his staff about advice that Cameron had passed on to him. They will come to you halfway through the campaign and say that you have to change the message, that it’s not working, that you have to change tack, Cameron told Kenny. That’s when you have to stick to your guns. Have faith. It will work. It will turn around. Kenny took the advice to heart.
By the end of the summer Fine Gael was more or less where it wanted to be. Candidate selection was not yet complete, but it could be completed pretty quickly if necessary. All that remained was for the Taoiseach to name the day. That became quite a saga.
Fianna Fáil smells blood
General-election preparations had formally begun at the start of 2015. By the time of the party’s ardfheis, in April, it had settled on the slogan “An Ireland for All” – a signpost towards the party’s increasing orientation towards a more social-democratic stance, with a greater emphasis on investment in public services, especially health.
“It all came down to core positioning and messaging,” says one of Fianna Fáil’s senior strategists. “And the core positioning was decided in the summer of 2012: it was the fairness agenda.”
Where Fine Gael was focused on macroeconomic figures, Fianna Fáil was focused on less-noticed polling results that showed people regarded the recovery as unevenly felt; many believed the government was accentuating inequality. The “unfairness” of the government’s application of austerity measures, rather than austerity in itself, became the dominant theme of Fianna Fáil policy documents and speeches between 2012 and 2015.
The Fianna Fáil team was buoyed by another trend it noticed. Although it no longer had anything like the resources that it used to be able to devote to private constituency polling, it began sampling some key constituencies in 2014. What it found was that the Fine Gael vote was tumbling – falling towards 20 per cent or even lower.
As 2015 went on the trend strengthened. In Cork North-West, Cork South-West, Waterford, Meath West, Mayo and Kerry the polls did not necessarily show that Fianna Fáil would pick up seats, but they did show that Fine Gael would lose them. By the summer of 2015 Fianna Fáil had a firm fix on constituencies where it could win seats that were in play. “So, strategically, we needed to frame the contest as Fianna Fáil versus Fine Gael,” says Sean Dorgan. That would be the next phase.
The election that wasn’t
A brisk three-week campaign promised a mid-November election. Minister for Finance Michael Noonan was strongly in favour of it, and the most important figures in Fine Gael’s backroom team – Mortell, McDowell and Kennelly – became convinced that a dash to the country gave them the best chance of returning to government with a working (if diminished) majority.
Kenny himself was afraid that a winter crisis in emergency departments would focus debate on public services rather than on the economy, where Fine Gael had, he believed, an unassailable advantage.
Others counselled caution. The polls were nowhere near where they needed to be, but the emerging trend was towards Fine Gael. Let it continue, they said. Wait for the budget to make an impact on people’s personal finances. But Kenny was edging towards November.
Suddenly, as Labour realised that he was serious, there was panic in the ranks of the smaller party. Languishing in the polls, Labour believed that going to the country before Christmas would be a disaster for it. Its leader, Joan Burton, made it clear, publicly and privately, that Labour would regard an early election as a double-cross.
Kenny backed down. A 2016 poll it would be.
The great giveaway
Then Kenny bungled his answers to questions about fiscal policy, insisting, “I’m not going to get into economic jargon here, because the vast majority of people don’t understand.” His opponents were quick to voice their suspicions that it was actually him who didn’t understand it.
It got worse over the next few days. By the end of the week Fine Gael’s “fiscal space” – its estimation of the resources available to the next government for tax cuts and new spending – had shrunk from €12 billion to €10 billion.
Instead of tapping into a mood of cautious optimism, the scale of promises in the Fine Gael plan harked back to the spendthrift era of the 2007 general election. Fine Gael TDs said that it appalled supporters who had expected prudence.
There was a view within Fine Gael that their match-winner would be Noonan, hailed within his party as the man who saved the economy. He had been cultivating a “wise old owl” persona in government, and Fine Gael grassroots swooned with admiration. The public appeared less impressed.
In addition, Noonan – who was 72 at the time of the election and has had bouts of ill health in recent years, including a spell in hospital at Christmas – was not the energetic campaigner of old. He may have been the most important minister in the outgoing government, but an election-winner he was not.
The campaign was in only its third day when a group of heavily armed criminals, dressed in Garda-style uniforms, murdered David Byrne, a gangland figure, at the weigh-in of a boxing match at the Regency Hotel in Drumcondra. It was quickly followed by the retaliatory killing of Eddie Hutch, a taxi-driver brother of the well-known gangster Gerry “the Monk” Hutch.
There might have been only three gangland murders in 2015, compared with 22 in 2010, but that didn’t matter. It was an opportunity for Fine Gael to play its traditional law-and-order card, but instead the government was on the back foot, accused of underfunding An Garda Síochána. Frances Fitzgerald initially said funding was not an issue, then announced a new armed unit for Dublin and found another €5 million to pay for tens of thousands of hours of Garda overtime. Other parties rapidly and extensively exploited this seeming contradiction.
Why Fine Gael lost
But Micheál Martin’s tight-knit campaign team – led by his party’s general secretary, Sean Dorgan; Dorgan’s deputy, Darragh McShea; Martin’s chief of staff, Deirdre Gillane; the party’s communications chief, Pat McParland; and its strategist Peter MacDonagh, with morning meetings chaired by the former general secretary Martin Mackin – succeeded in the key areas where Fine Gael failed.
Crucially, it read the public mood accurately. The party’s campaign manager, Billy Kelleher, having signed off on strategy, performed the role of morale officer and cheerleader, sending out daily messages to the organisation that threw digs at Fine Gael and pollsters in equal measure.
Fianna Fáil understood the depth of public disaffection with the government and the desire for a change, and it designed and implemented a campaign that turned that into a political advantage for its candidates. After the carnage of five years ago it was an extraordinary turnaround.
In debates Enda Kenny failed to move beyond precooked soundbites and never looked at ease. At a rally in Mayo he declared that Castlebar had “all-Ireland champion whingers” who were never happy with anything. Not all gaffes or controversies matter, but this did, because it provided a clear window into the strategic flaw in Fine Gael’s message. That it took two days to “clarify” the statement was a signal of a campaign focused on implementing a pre-agreed strategy and failing to respond to events. Fianna Fáil could not believe its luck.
There was a major flaw also in the economic narrative. The widespread belief that the recovery was unevenly distributed was partly helped by media coverage, particularly on RTÉ, which sometimes tended to concentrate on the negative stories of those left behind rather than the positive news of job creation and returned emigrants, much to the coalition’s fury. The perception that the recovery was unfair began to dig into the public consciousness.
Equally, for the majority of people who did not feel better off a constant trumpeting of how good things were reinforced the idea of being left behind. When a recovery is felt to be unfair a slogan about keeping the recovery going becomes less compelling.
There were other reasons behind Fine Gael’s disaster. Ireland is different from the UK. Its elections are not binary. Voters have other options – in this case Fianna Fáil and Independents. The electoral system facilitates more choice. But, fundamentally, Fine Gael and Labour damaged their own economic credibility.
Months before the election, during a series of frank conversations with a senior figure in government, this writer suggested it was clear that, having presided over a remarkable economic recovery, the government was now going to use some of the proceeds of that growth to buy the election. After the required denials that the two parties would even contemplate such a thing, the senior figure admitted, “Of course we are going to try to buy the election. But we will buy it as prudently as we can.” People weren’t selling, however.
A fundamental misjudgment
It was a fundamental misjudgment, and from it flowed the failure of the Fine Gael campaign. It turns out that it was a “change election” after all. For all the fun that political figures had at pundits’ and pollsters’ expense when the results became clear – and perhaps they were entitled to it – none of the parties anticipated the result. The electorate’s record of swinging decisively in the final stages of a campaign, to the consternation of everyone on count day, remains intact. A change election, then, but a very Irish one, resulting in cautious change. Indeed, in an environment where disdain for politicians is at an all-time high, where people simultaneously expect government to solve problems while believing them incapable of doing anything right, perhaps every election is a change election.
This is an edited extract from Pat Leahy’s contribution to the book How Ireland Voted 2016: The Election That Nobody Won, edited by Michael Gallagher and Michael Marsh and published by Palgrave Macmillan