Negative campaigning? In Irish politics? It happens

Fine Gael, PDs, Labour and Fianna Fáil all have experience from elections past

 Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin at the launch of his party’s election advertising campaign which has been described as a negative effort. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin at the launch of his party’s election advertising campaign which has been described as a negative effort. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times.

 

Negative campaigning is not a new phenomenon in Irish politics. Three decades ago Fianna Fáil launched a billboard campaign against the ruling coalition government. The legend stated: ‘Health cuts hurt the old, the sick and the handicapped’.

It might be considered relatively mild now but it was incendiary at the time. It was a major factor in Fianna Fáil’s success in the 1987 general election. The irony was that the party proceeded to implement the same cuts it criticised.

Political attack adverts over the years have had varying amounts of venom in the sting. Michael McDowell of the Progressive Democrats shinned up a lamp-post in 2002 with a “Single Party Government, No Thanks” poster. That was an example of a very successful effort; the PDs returned with eight seats in the next Dáil. He tried to do the same trick five years in 2007 later but was ambushed by John Gormley of the Greens in a verbal kerfuffle that became known as the “Rumble of Ranelagh”.

In 2001, Fine Gael launched a poster campaign that punned on the Celtic Tiger. “It is time to eradicate the Celtic Snail”, was its message. The pun was weak, the message was abstruse, and lacked impact. It fell flat.

Tesco ad

The Labour advert parodying a Tesco Ad in 2011 was a classic piece of negative campaigning, warning voters of six nasty things that would happen if Fine Gael was elected as a single party government. Embarrassingly for Labour, all six predictions came true despite it being in the Coalition (a €1 rise in excise on wine; a water tax; cuts in child benefit; a rise in car tax; a 3 per cent hike in Dirt tax; and a 2 per cent Vat increase). It worked in the heat of electoral battle but did the party untold damage in the longer term.

By their very nature, election campaigns are negative. You extol your own policies and people; and criticise those of your opponents. However, attacks in the Irish context have been relatively subtle and contained, compared to other countries. During the 1997 general election in Britain a personalised attack advert by the Tories featured Tony Blair with “Demon Eyes”. It helped plant doubts in some minds about Blair’s true intentions.

US speciality

Of course, American politics has long specialised in the negative and nasty. The First Amendment of the US Constitution, guaranteeing free speech, give a candidate licence to describe an opponent as a harbourer of criminals and rapists and get away with it. Republican front-runner Donald Trump has used Instagram to launch multiple egregious attacks on his opponents. His latest ad targeting Hillary Clinton’s credentials on women’s rights features images of Monica Lewinsky, former Democrat congressman Anthony Weiner (who was involved in a sex scandal), and the disgraced comedian Bill Cosby, who is now facing charges of rape.

The use of Instagram by Trump reflects how powerful social media has become. Twitter, Facebook and other channels have facilitated unofficial spear-carriers of parties, or political causes hurling the basest of abuse at foes.

Messaging from parties has become more strident and personalised through these channels, but has not yet plumbed the depths. Given the post-modern tenor of social media, parody seems to be the name of the game.

Gay marriage

The recent effort by the Labour Party, featuring a mock ‘gay marriage’ between Micheál Martin and Gerry Adams, is a case in point. It was intended to be humorous, highlighting Labour’s campaign for same-sex marriage while stoking up fears about a Fianna Fail-Sinn Féin coalition. It didn’t work because it didn’t pass the taste test, mostly for diminishing its achievement to the status of a pun.

Fianna Fáil’s advert is mild enough compared to some of the stomach-churning examples from abroad. It’s essentially a parody of the Fine Gael billboard from 2007 which featured Enda Kenny saying he would end the hospital trolley scandal. The problem with the poster is not its negative tone rather its ineffectiveness. Most motorists passing at 40kph will catch only the image of Enda Kenny and think it’s a Fine Gael poster.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.