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.
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.
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.
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.
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.