Balancing party and national good

Fine Gael leadership contest comes at a critical time for the State

 

The Fine Gael leadership contest is already well underway. Although the primary focus of the leader will be on running the State, he or she will also have to deal with the difficult challenge of trying to revive the party’s fortunes. Many Fine Gael TDs are demoralised after a disappointing general election a year ago, followed by the frustrations of trying to run a minority government at the mercy of Independents and Fianna Fáil for its day-to-day survival.

The forthcoming leadership battle could serve as a mechanism for re-energising the party faithful or alternatively it could sow the seeds of future discord if candidates or their supporters adopt the wrong tone in pursuit of victory.

So far the two declared contenders, Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar, have shown a healthy respect for each other and the signs are that they will engage in a civilised and constructive contest. The manner in which Taoiseach Enda Kenny resolved the potential crisis about his future intentions should help to create the right atmosphere for a mature assessment of the relative merits of the candidates.

Unlike previous leadership contests in the party, ordinary members will now have a significant say in the outcome under a system which gives the parliamentary party 65 per cent of the votes, the members 25 per cent and councillors 10 per cent.

It is expected that a number of debates will be organised around the State to enable the members to make an informed choice about who should be the next leader. Those debates should help the party develop a distinctive policy platform, something that has become obscured by six years in office, and allow TDs and party members to grapple with the question of what Fine Gael now stands for.

There is more than the interests of Fine Gael at stake in all of this. For a start the new leader will be the next Taoiseach who will face a range of complex problems most notably Brexit. It is important for all the citizens that Fine Gael chooses the candidate best equipped to deal with national issues as well as problems facing the party. It is also vital that the party which leads the Government is in good shape so the next Taoiseach and the cabinet can focus on the national interest rather than being distracted by internal squabbles.

The existence of cohesive and vibrant political parties is essential for the health of our democracy. The triumph of Donald Trump in the United States was facilitated by erosion of public confidence in both of the major parties in that country. In power Fine Gael has tended to allow party interest take second place to the responsibilities of government. The next leader will have to give the party a coherent voice as well as running the State in an effective manner at a critical time.

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