From Irish Political Review: June 2007

Remember 62

The result of the 2007 election was Fianna Fail 78, Fine Gael 51, Labour 20, Green 6, Sinn Fein 4, Progressive Democrats 2, Independents 5. The share of first preferences was 41.6%, 27.3%, 10.1%, 4.7%, 6.9%, 2.7% and 6.6% respectively.

Fianna Fail obtained the same percentage as the 2002 election but lost three seats (it had already lost two since 2002: Beverley Cooper Flynn and Charlie McCreevy). Nevertheless it can claim to be the big winner in this election. It has been in power for all but two and a half of the last 20 years and, after all the changes in that period both in Irish society and the world, it remains the dominant political party in the state.

Reflecting on his success, Ahern claimed on RTE that Fianna Fail had been the most successful political party in Europe. His success was all the more remarkable because it was achieved in the context of a vicious media campaign against him. On the Saturday after the election the Labour Party leader Pat Rabbitte compared Fianna Fail to a tribe in its loyalty to its chief and admitted that, if any other party leader had been subjected to what Ahern had been, such a leader would have looked behind him to find his troops had all gone. Fianna Fail is some tribe! And Ahern is some Chief!

The media campaign failed to break the morale of Fianna Fail. On the contrary it galvanised the rank and file and only made them more determined to succeed.

But the groundwork for Fianna Fail's electoral success was laid many years before. After the 2002 election it realised that the most significant threat to its position would come from Sinn Fein. It decided to reassert its republican values with the 1916 Celebration and indications that it would tackle "historical revisionism". It also consolidated its working class support by moving to the left despite the continued participation of the Progressive Democrats in government. Charlie McCreevy was dispatched to Brussels and the more left wing Brian Cowen replaced him as Minister for Finance.

It was very noticeable that Ahern portrayed himself as an ordinary working class guy in the debate with Enda Kenny. On the question of class sizes he admitted that he hadn't achieved his target of a student-teacher ratio of 20 in the general population, but that he had done it in the disadvantaged areas. He claimed that this was always his priority. His claim that the Fine Gael policy of not abolishing the PRSI ceiling meant that the latter's policy favoured the top 3% of the population was a masterstroke.

Fine Gael can be satisfied that it won 20 seats, but the claim that this achievement was "historic" is an overstatement. All it did was recover most of the 23 seats it had lost in its disastrous 2002 campaign. Its number of seats and share of the vote remains below that of the 1997 election and way below the dizzy heights it achieved in the November 1982 election (70 seats and 39.2% of first preferences).

More important, it is likely to remain in opposition for another 5 years, a serious setback for a party which needs the oxygen of power to sustain it. Nevertheless it was on a life support machine in 2002 and no one can claim that that is the case in 2007.

This was another bad election for the Labour Party. Labour has gone backwards under Pat Rabbitte. A loss of one seat in this election may not seem bad, but the Labour Party has been at a low ebb in every election since the "Spring tide of 1992" when it won more than 30 seats. The amalgamation of Labour with Democratic Left has failed to revive its fortunes. The one consolation of the 2002 election was that Labour was only 10 seats behind Fine Gael. It could have challenged that party for the leadership of the opposition. But Rabbitte has only succeeded in giving new life to Fine Gael, which looked moribund 5 years ago. Apparently there is no challenge to the leadership of Rabbitte, which indicates a lack of ambition and life within the party. Given the age profile of its TDs and the paucity of successors, the prognosis for the party is not good.

In the post election analysis politicians from the smaller parties complained that they were squeezed by the presidential style of the campaign. The primary responsibility for this must rest with Rabbitte who enabled Kenny to appear as a plausible alternative Taoiseach. Labour de-politicised the campaign by its alliance with Fine Gael, which unlike under other Labour leaders was in place years before the election. It was not just an electoral alliance since it determined the framework of political conflict well before the election. It was clear to left wing voters that any Labour policy to the left of Fianna Fail would be neutralised by Fine Gael. The Fine Gael/Labour alternative was not offering political change but merely a change of personnel. The election became a contest between the competence and to a lesser extent the integrity of the outgoing Government as compared to the Fine Gael/Labour alternative.

The de-politicisation of the campaign marginalised the smaller parties and independents. Sinn Fein was further isolated by the refusal of the two main political blocs to countenance Sinn Fein participation in government. But Sinn Fein also fought a poor campaign. Gerry Adams appeared completely out of touch with society in the south. The four Sinn Fein TDs who retained their seats did so by their own efforts. Despite its success in the North it lost one seat in this election and does not appear to have made any progress since 2002. Its most likely prospect of gaining seats is in the Border County of Donegal rather than the urban working class areas of the Republic. Its political influence is not unlike that of Sinn Fein the Workers Party in the early 1980s with the significant difference that Sinn Fein has made a political breakthrough in the North. But in this election Sinn Fein failed to obtain any electoral benefit from its success in the North and it is not clear that this will change in the future.

The Greens came back with the same number of seats as they went out with, but are entering an interesting phase in their political development and may have the option to participate in government. The Green Party, unlike other small parties in the history of the state is unlikely to go away. It may be in a strong pivotal position in the formation of governments for many years to come as have its counterparts in continental Europe.

The big losers were the Progressive Democrats. That party's political origins arose from the split within Fianna Fail in the late 1980s. But it has become a receptacle for disenchanted Fine Gael voters. Accordingly it has waxed and waned in the opposite direction to the fortunes of Fine Gael. It lost six seats and the two seats it retained, Mary Harney and Noel Grealish (Bobby Molloy's old seat), have their origins in Fianna Fail.

This magazine is no friend of Mary Harney, but although she only barely scraped in she must have noted with some satisfaction that many of the "hospital" candidates had lost their seats along with Fine Gael's health spokesman Liam Twomey. If the health service is in crisis the voters had no confidence in the alternative on offer.

Although the Progressive Democrats Party has recovered from electoral setbacks before (in 1997 it was down to 4 seats), it is difficult to see how it can continue after this election. Its problem is that its political ground has been on a too narrow basis. It has been dependent on winning Fine Gael first preferences and Fianna Fail transfers. Fine Gael's revival and McDowell's disastrous leadership undermined even this narrow base. His obeisance to the media on the subject of Ahern's finances and then his hasty change of mind sealed his fate. On the last count in Dublin South East he obtained only 43% of the Fianna Fail candidate's transfers despite there being no other Fianna Fail candidate in the field.

The role of the media and in particular The Irish Times has been examined elsewhere in this magazine. The Irish Times and indeed any other newspaper is perfectly entitled to declare its political allegiance in an open and honest way, but that is not what it did during this election campaign. It attempted to set the agenda around the question of Ahern's finances. All of this had been dealt with last October. But The Irish Times devoted acres of newsprint to this question during the election, even though nothing new emerged and it had been requested by the Mahon Tribunal to desist from using leaked documents which were supplied by Ahern on a confidential basis.

Not a shred of evidence has been produced to indicate political corruption. But as Brian Lenihan Senior remarked after his unsuccessful bid for the presidency:

"Honesty and integrity don't count for anything anymore, what matters now is 'credibility' and 'credibility' is what the media choose to believe at any given point in time".

A second feature of The Irish Times's campaign was to pretend that Fianna Fail was in disarray. It completely ignored the evidence of its own opinion polls that this was not the case and indeed that Fianna Fail had increased its support during the campaign. An example of the bizarre coverage of that newspaper was a one-page news feature by Kathy Sheridan on the Saturday before polling day when it was clear that the opposition had been put on the back foot.

The headline in the article was: "High drama at party HQ, sour mood on the doorsteps". The first two paragraphs of the article show a complete misreading of the debate between Ahern and Kenny:

"To some of us out in RTE on Thursday night, it was the post debate scene that told the story. As Bertie rushed away to steady the troops back at Fianna Fail election headquarters at Treasury Buildings, a spectral PJ Mara hovered, telling anyone in earshot that his boss had won 'by a country mile. Of course'. People nodded politely, but no one was clamouring to hear more. Il Duce's right hand man, lyricist of the smash, 'Showtime!', looked like a man who had lost his mojo."

Classic Irish Times! After more than 20 years Mara is not allowed forget his jocose fascist reference. But meanwhile…

"In the Fine Gael hospitality room, by contrast, Enda Kenny and his handlers lingered contentedly, too drained, too choked with gratitude to the election gods, to rise and break the spell. The air was thick with relief. After weeks of warnings that the contest was his to lose, they were toasting not victory, but basic survival."

The next paragraph reads like an extract from Mills and Boon:

"Never mind the issues. The movement for change was evident on the way in, when he resisted such classic, turn-off Enda-isms as the silly thumbs-up and the lame clenched fist. The clean, vigorous leap from the Mercedes, the jacket slung over the shoulder, were an echo of Blair in his pomp. His few words to the media conveyed quiet confidence with a dash of humility, acknowledging the useful sparring practice gained at 'impromptu press conferences' around the country in recent weeks."

And in similar gushing prose Sheridan wrote:

"Now here they were, two hours further on, and they had not lost. To be sure, the thrusting new leader hadn't landed the crushing blow he should have landed on the grizzled old timer, but heck, the show was still on the road."

The only problem with this is that the "thrusting new leader", who "should have" landed a blow, is five months older than the "grizzled old-timer". But why let the facts get in the way of propaganda and so:

"… for all Bertie's tombstone grin and fighting form, dread hangs around Fianna Fail like a shroud. For one friendly Fianna Fail regular at Treasury Buildings (or Meltdown Manor, as some denizens have christened it), 'it's like going to someone's house where something really terrible has happened and everyone has been locked in for a long time. The campaign isn't really functioning. Something's just not working. They're coming across as an old, tired team who've had their day'"

And even the good news was bad news:

"The marvellous celebratory set-pieces that have conferred a deserved place among the greats on Bertie Ahern, and were seen to be brilliantly strategic in their timing, have also associated him, however, with Tony Blair's unseemly clinging to power and interminable farewell. Blair had to concede, finally, that 10 years is enough. Clinton is gone because the American people hold that no president is worth more than two terms. That leaves Bertie, battling gamely for a third. 'Fear is the only tactic in town now', says a Fianna Failer', i.e. 'The left is nigh'".

And this was not just at Fianna Fail head office:

"In the soundest of Fianna Fail areas, suspicion crackled too around the decision to hold the election on a Thursday. The issue raised its head repeatedly, as parents complained that, having imbued their children with the duty to vote, they were almost being disenfranchised."


"Waste and arrogance were constant themes."

And on the stump:

"What often followed was a tale of horror about health, school places, or three-hour commutes, often with a curse on the heads of those who wasted pots of public money on electronic voting and management consultants. One quoted Noel Dempsey's famous riposte about the 50 million euro electronic voting project—that 'it wasn't a lot of money … relatively speaking'"

And of course Ahern's finances also came up:

"Bertiegate of itself is not enough to sink the Fianna Fail ship: it's just another thread in the blanket of corrosion. In Cashel, a businesswoman and Fianna Fail voter, forced to work three menial jobs to support her two children while being pursued through the courts for details of her husband's whereabouts after his desertion 20 years ago, railed against the 'cheek of Bertie in his big Government job… saying he needed a dig-out, using his separation as an excuse to take money from businessmen. Separated and divorce people will never forgive him for that.'"

Kathy Sheridan deserves an Irish Times employee of the month award for that paragraph alone. It touches pretty well all the 'politically correct' bases. But it is very curious that the anonymous Fianna Fail voter describes Bertie as being in a "big Government job". Why not "Taoiseach"?

So what is the consequence of all this doom and gloom for Fianna Fail?

"Two months ago, a well-known Fianna Failer, chatting about the party's electoral prospects (and who probably had access to the private polls), tore a page from a notebook and wrote down a figure: 'Hold on to that. See if I'm right.' It read '62'.

"If it materialises it spells melt down, 19 seats gone south. This week, after hitting the canvass and what he called 'the semi-final of the Eurovision' (the four smaller parties' debate on Prime Time on Wednesday) he texted a message: 'Remember 62'"

But Fianna Fail returned with 78 seats and no reduction in its First Preference share. Kevin Rafter of the Sunday Tribune on the day after the election blurted out on RTE that the campaign bore no relation to the result of the election. And he said it without a hint of self irony.

At his first television interview after the election Ahern commented on the media campaign. Interestingly he said that he had nothing against the individual journalists involved. They had well paid jobs, but had to "do as they were told".

So Kathy Sheridan cannot be blamed. Nor can the Editor of The Irish Times. They were only doing what they were told. The ultimate responsibility lies with the secret oath-bound directory, which controls the newspaper: the Governors of The Irish Times Trust.

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