FG divided only on best way to win next election

Enda Kenny brought FG back from the dead but doubts are growing as to whether he has what it takes to win power, writes ELAINE BYRNE in the IRISH TIMES JUNE 15 2010

RICHARD BRUTON joined a large Fine Gael contingent to celebrate the marriage of a popular member of the party’s organisation last Friday.

The then deputy leader and finance spokesman was his usual jovial self and found himself at the heart of a mostly Dublin circle of prominent party members and well-heeled party supporterss.

The wedding was the same day as the Irish Times /Ipsos MRBI opinion poll which placed Fine Gael behind Labour and recorded yet another drop in Enda Kenny’s personal ratings.

Deep within the Fine Gael psyche there is a psychosis over poor poll ratings, particularly since John Bruton’s unchivalrous dethroning in 2001.

The mantra was one of: “What more can we do? We’ve published detailed policy documents on health, political reform, energy, jobs, water and broadband!”

In private, some became very emotional that their polite, middle-class anger was no longer enough.

This is not like other leadership contests. The faint ideological divisions between the Christian democratic and social democratic wings of Fine Gael are absent. Enda Kenny and Richard Bruton both uphold the same John Brutonite tradition.

This is not an ideological divide but an urban/rural one.

Gay Mitchell MEP and Senator Liam Twomey did the rounds yesterday on RTÉ’s Drivetime and TodayFM’s The Last Word , dismissing last Friday’s traumatic survey as “only one poll, like a swallow”.

This belies the long-term underlying trends of Fine Gael support.

Fine Gael is almost back to the level of support it won in 2007 and has dropped 10 percentage points in the last year.

Writing in The Irish Times in 2007, the newly elected TD for Dublin West noted that “Fine Gael will have to look like modern Ireland … To do this, we will have to embrace urban and suburban Ireland, adopt a more modern, cosmopolitan image.”

Leo Varadkar’s analysis still holds water today. “I was three years old in 1982 when we were last elected to government. Fine Gael remains unable to break out of the 23-29 per cent rut in which it has been stuck since then.”

Crucially, Fine Gael has lost 7 points in the Dublin region in the six months since January’s Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll. Labour now has almost double the support that Fine Gael has in the capital.

In his geographical breakdown of the poll by constituency on the www.politicalreform.ie website, Dr Adrian Kavanagh, a political geographer at NUI Maynooth, predicts that Fine Gael will fail to win any seats in Dublin Central or Dublin North West.

Although their situation is not as dramatic as Fianna Fáil’s, Fine Gael’s core constituency is becoming more rural and older in character. It does best among the 50-64 age group and the over-65s while its weakest category remains the 25-34 age group, according to the January poll.

Pragmatism is the new dogma for a parliamentary party that has little collective experience of power.

One prominent Fine Gael TD at the wedding said that his decision would come down to the fact that 55 per cent of the population are Leinster-based, with two-thirds of Irish people now under 44 years of age.

“This is not about whether we’ll get into government but the difference between 55 and 75 seats,” said the TD.

“Enda believes in this west of Ireland, crossing the Shannon gobshite mentality” noted another very frustrated TD, “where he’ll bring back the title of taoiseach as if it were the bloody bacon to Mayo. Connacht nonsense.”

This made life initially very difficult for the Wexford, Roscommon and Clare TDs, Michael Darcy, Denis Naughten and Joe Carey, whose political fathers were dyed-in-the-wool Bruton loyalists.

Eamon Gilmore’s Dublin persona has given the Labour Party a free rein in urban Ireland at the expense of the Offaly- and Mayo-based Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael leadership.

There is internal confidence that Kenny could easily take on Cowen but much less certainty about his ability to match Gilmore’s anger management communication skills.

There is a belief among some party members that although Kenny deserves extraordinary credit for his organisational talents and Fine Gael’s Lazarus-like recovery, “this country needs a leader who knows something about economics”.

The observation by another well-seasoned Fine Gael TD that Enda would not stand down voluntarily – “Enda’s wife used to work for Haughey, she’s a political operator who knows how to fight” – was borne out when Bruton was dramatically sacked yesterday.

On the other hand, even Bruton’s own supporters are scathing of the golden boy’s rather genial approach for the job of taoiseach. One clearly exasperated urban-based Brutonite lamented this gentlemanly public persona of what he described as “home-made raspberry jam! For God’s sake, the pastel suits and open-neck shirts. Queensberry rules stuff.”

Confidence motions have been thrown around like confetti this week.

Only one team has turned up on the pitch so far. Members of the parliamentary party were incredibly reluctant to go on the record with their comments.

As Bruton said in his RTÉ television news interview last night: “For some people, loyalty is everything.”

Maybe his sacking will force those who kept their silence yesterday to put their heads above the parapet now.

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