What on earth has happened to the Fine Gael campaign?

First published in the Sunday Business Post 21 February 2016

‘We didn’t help ourselves at the start.” Understatement of the year by Jamie Heaslip, who seemed dazed and confused in his post-match interview last October.

The expectations of a historic Rugby World Cup semi-final weighed heavy on Irish shoulders. It was not to be. Argentina stormed to a 17-0 lead inside the first quarter of an hour. Ireland had again choked on the big stage.

“Ireland were too narrow in defence and attack,” Gerry Thornley wrote in his Irish Times post mortem. Their performance was characterised by bad decisions and poor execution.

Well, hello there, Fine Gael election strategy! Why is the party screwing up its re-election?

“On one hand, it’s ‘Let’s keep the recovery going’ and on the other it’s ‘There’s €10 billion to spend, lads’,” said a senior Fine Gael public representative last week. “It’s as if we have no strategy.” Fine Gaelers on the ground are as dazed and confused as Jamie Heaslip was. What is happening to the largest government majority in the history of the state?

Red flags were raised during Enda Kenny’s ard fheis speech last January. It was a signal of what was to come. Flat, devoid of vision and grand ideas, the 2011 election slogan of a five-point plan was replaced by a 2016 slogan. “Keep the Recovery Going” translated as “We’re going through the motions, let us back into government, please.”

There is a sense that Fine Gael is “trying not to campaign”, as one elected representative put it. The defensive election strategy of a 0-0 draw has turned into 0-2 down with a week to go. The leader’s campaign is controlled to an inch of its life. The campaign in general lacks imagination and personality.

Set-pieces of podiums in factories, the meet-and-greet with the party faithful in constituency offices and safe farmers in isolated sheds is dry biscuit territory in the middle of a heatwave. The big walks up main streets, match days and mart days are avoided for fear of doorsteps by an unpredictable public. This campaigning style does not suit Kenny, a formidable one-to-one canvasser.

The controlled dullness of the leader’s campaign has swept Ireland into a slumber. The election was the lead item on the Six One News just once in week two of the campaign. There is no excited Charlie Bird, but instead RTÉ regional correspondent Pat McGrath, who dutifully reports which podium Kenny stood on that day. Gone are the days when U2 endorsed Garret FitzGerald with a photo session on the last Friday of the campaign.

Fine Gael is too polite to do attack politics properly. Some FGers are now comparing Michael Noonan to the ever-injured Liverpool striker Daniel Sturridge. Brilliant when he gets on the pitch, but mostly missing in action.

But this focus on the delivery of the message is the wrong target. Fine Gael, like the Irish rugby team, had the wrong strategy from the off. The entire focus of Ireland was on beating France in the first round in order to avoid the All Blacks in the quarter-finals. Fine Gael’s focus was on completing a five-year government term, and not on the actual three weeks of a re-election campaign.

The weakness of Fine Gael’s campaign runs deeper than the delivery of the message. It is inexperience. This is the first Fine Gael-led government since the brief 30-month accident known as the Rainbow Coalition in the mid-1990s.

A key election strategist reckons that Fine Gael’s problems are infrastructural. When in government, the government must operate and the party must also separately operate. This inevitable tension between staff in Government Buildings versus those in party headquarters has resulted in the latter being sidelined. The vagueness of the “recovery” campaigning slogan suggests little evidence of a campaign core because of tensions between both entities.

With four and a half media days left in the campaign, doubt is knocking at the door of the Fine Gael campaign, if it hasn’t already. Like rugby players on the pitch with ten minutes to go, the only thing that matters is absolute self-belief. This is what made Munster rugby glorious in the early 2000s. The “miracle” games against Gloucester and Wasps were psychological wins, not physical victories. Once that belief goes, the campaign dies.

Fine Gaelers are privately talking up the “big bang” which will restore belief. In other words, the intervention that will dramatically change the dynamic of the campaign by the scruff of the neck, like Brian Cowen did in 2007.

There are two problems with this scenario. Cowen’s robust put-down of Fine Gael’s economic policies happened ten days out from election day. We are now four and a half media days away from the crunch. Secondly, Bertie Ahern followed up Cowen’s performance by winning the leaders’ debate hands down. Will Kenny deliver a knockout blow on Tuesday?

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