Noel Whelan: Fine Gael has nothing left to offer voters except fear

FG have applied British Tory script without adapting appropriately to the Irish context

Irish Times political correspondent Harry McGee spends the day with Enda Kenny TD as he makes a whistle-stop election campaign tour of Leitrim and Roscommon. Video : Bryan O’Brien


Another week over and discernible shifts in the election campaign are only slight. There has been a softening of the Fine Gael vote. Polling this weekend will tell us whether this has become a slide.

There has been a hardening of support for Independents and smaller parties.

The poll figures for Sinn Féin have nudged up and then back down, and settled where they have been since before the campaign, which is about twice where they were in 2011.

There is also much to suggest a small surge for Fianna Fáil on the ground, although that may never be captured until the actual result of the election itself.

If the false start to the Fine Gael campaign was curious, its failure to make progress in the last two weeks has been striking.

The party has applied the British Conservatives’ playbook without adapting to the Irish context. Fine Gael spokespersons talk incessantly about keeping a recovery going even though half of the electorate says it feels no recovery.

The Taoiseach and his Ministers claim a necessity to keep them in power to sustain that recovery but the voters know the reasons for Ireland’s rapid emergence from the economic crisis are more complex than claimed.

Many of the central tenets of the Fine Gael campaign have been damaged.

The party’s reassuring message of economic competence has been damaged by its confusion over the size of the fiscal space.

Its extravagant promise to abolish the universal social charge has undermined its reputation for prudence.

Meanwhile, it has been forced to offer up the Taoiseach for interview to all media organisations in order to avoid suggestions it is hiding him away. His performances have been mixed, and his message seems repetitive and negative.

In the week that remains all Fine Gael has left in its tank is a “project fear” campaign.

It is not surprising that it has decided to try to frighten voters, but it is very strange that it has decided to talk up, sometimes in very colourful terms, how much it is going to try to scare us all.

Meanwhile there is no Labour recovery. After being in denial about its plight for the last two years, it seemed at the start of this campaign that Labour settled on a final desperate strategy of hoping Fine Gael would surge, and then arguing the necessity for Labour to balance any Fine Gael-led government.

That Fine Gael surge has not materialised. The polls suggest the seat numbers will be far from those necessary for a Fine Gael and Labour government, and so the Labour strategy is marooned.

Core voters

Despite all the noise around and about Sinn Féin, that party has held to a careful campaign strategy focused on its core voters and those who have warmed to it since 2011. These supporters and potential supporters are unmoved by media furore about issues such as the Special Criminal Court.

The Social Democrats were always the party with most potential going into this election, not least because they are positioned at that point in the spectrum where there is most movement, especially away from Labour.

They have run a competent and refreshing campaign with a distinct message. Stephen Donnelly gave them a strong performance in the televised leaders’ debate this week. However, their party organisation is underresourced, underdeveloped and overstretched, which means their rising vote in the polls cannot be reflected in the actual election.

The traction which the Social Democrats have gained in this campaign goes to show that if some coherent collective had emerged in the left-of-centre space some years earlier it could now be soaring and primed to play a crucial part in government formation.

Renua has had to rely on leader Lucinda Creighton’s profile for a campaign. After that it has published attention-grabbing right-wing policies like the flat tax and “three strikes and you’re out” prison sentencing. The problem is that these appeal to a very small niche.

Marshalled anger

The Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit looks like not only holding the seats it has but also gaining a couple. It has carefully marshalled anger at the Labour Party in working class areas.

What is also striking in this campaign is the extent to which much of the intense anger towards Fianna Fáil in 2011 has abated.

Micheál Martin is free to roam and canvass the high streets to surprisingly warm reactions. He was also solid in the debates where, although the most heavily-marked player on the pitch, he survived without significant injury.

However, it is Independents who look like being the winners of Election 2016. That said, with the ultimate outcome looking even more like Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil this week, those Independents will all have to content themselves with the opposition benches.

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