Our four main parties have a lot of thinking to do.
The political landscape is resembling a cartoon where all the characters run into each other and then all stumble around dizzy and seeing stars. As each party gets ready to assess where they stand they have some serious thinking to do. Fine Gael needs to look hard at the poll figures. There is no point being pleased that you still lead not when you have lost as much vote share as they have. The party has been listless and completely at sea since the troika left.
There is no vigour, enthusiasm or belief in their ability to regain votes. Most of this has to be laid at the door of the leader. However, such events happen in any leader’s term and it is all down to how you react to them. Up to now Enda Kenny has been too loyal and too slow to act. His upcoming reshuffle will allow him to re-invent himself and his team. He needs to get new faces and find a new direction for his party. Post troika Ireland needs that direction. Most importantly, FG needs to stop the slide into a culture of excuses. ‘FF ruined the economy’, ‘FF signed up to this’ or ‘FF people did worse so it’s no big thing if our guys go a little wrong’. They need to stop dismissing criticism ‘SF and the IRA killed people so don’t talk to me you’ or the tendency to dismiss alternatives and other views out of hand and put them down to jealousy, agendas or point scoring. FG desperately needs to start listening. That does not mean it can’t defend itself or lay the odd blow but it must absorb what’s said and seek to address it. A lot of avoidable errors have beset this government and that must end now.
Labour is gradually being talked to death. I’ve written enough about it at this stage and do not wish to add more to their current pain. However, the eternal wait for their new leader is proof positive of a disastrous mechanism for running their party. Yes I know it all sounds good on paper but right now everyone just wants them to get on with the vote, elect their leader and then start the task of saving their party. Labour needs to think differently. It needs new advice and should seek that from two sources, its own membership on the ground and people with no affiliation to their party. Only that mix will deliver the hard talking and decisions they need.
Fianna Fail will head into summer in another fine mess. Brian Crowley deciding to leave their European grouping should not have come as a surprise. He was never happy there. Indeed FF joined it without a huge amount of debate. In 2009 Katy Hayward of Queens University Belfast, assisted by myself, wrote a paper on FF and its European tribulations. ‘Fianna Fail, tenacious localism – tenuous Europeanism’ illustrated that the party had a strong euro sceptic streak. Real debate as to the kind of Europe FF wanted had not taken place and that there was a major disconnect between people at the top and those on the ground as regards their views of Europe. More worrying for FF is that the whole saga (not unrelated to a disastrous handling of the FF presidential nomination process) shows how the power of individual machines rules over the idea of a complete party. Unlike the past FF has nobody to draw all this together. Micheal Martin will be blamed but for the wrong reason. A leader must take decisions that offend and will become embroiled in spats all the time. This is why the management of a party and the creation of an espirit de corps cannot be left in a leaders hands alone. If Martin deserves criticism it is because he failed to realise this. As leader it was his job to appoint the people, TDs were given tasks, agendas set and internal staff employed. His job was to ensure he got this right and to be honest he has failed.
Martin needs to be concentrating on policy, on the government and on major issues, he should be able to trust that matters are dealt with internally but he can’t because there is nobody on his team capable of this. A simple example is that even now FF is continuing its outrage with Crowley over the airwaves and press statements, showing that there is likely nobody on the leadership’s side of the argument who holds the trust of the others and can go to them and talk like an honest broker.
Sinn Fein continue plodding along quite happily. Yet, the fact remains that the party should not be accepting its current rating just because it’s an increase on previous elections. SF is coming from a low base. It should be increasing and growing much faster. It has a range of policies that people broadly like, despite their dismissal as ‘fairytale economics’ people will still be inclined to ‘give them a chance’. This is the golden age for SF, their make or break time where they can establish themselves during a weak period for all competitors. SF can reasonably target a poll rating of 28% given the environment. They will not achieve that without some movement though. They must reassess their policy of a scatter gun approach to all other parties. They need to target their criticism and focus on who their enemies are. It will suit both SF and FG to put each other at opposite ends of the spectrum and define politics that way, but this means that SF must become a tad less hostile to everyone else.
Then there is the danger of the old question of the ‘troubles’. FG will use this and the many unanswered questions from this era to hurt them and it will deter a good number of potential voters so long as the current leadership still has links. Gerry Adams and SF came through a difficult period after his arrest over the McConville kidnapping and murder. The public showed a degree of trust in SF. The basis of this was that Gerry Adams was an innocent man, who was appealing to those who had information to please come forward, but that in the absence of this he was being framed somehow. That was reasonable. However, inexplicably Adams has raised eyebrows among the public this week. Seamus Mallon accused the IRA leadership of not doing more to help the release of Gerry Conlon and others in Britain. Instead of directing any questions to the IRA and maintaining his line of ‘I was not in the IRA and know nothing’, Adams decided to defend the IRA leadership and said that it was not their fault. Either Adams and SF speak for the IRA or they do not. SF can and should grow, but not before they think long and hard about this question over the summer. They say the war is over and people must move on. Many agree. But then SF must accept that the romantic old vision of the IRA is gone too and it’s time to stop defending it like there is still a war on. Time to stop saying two wrongs make a right. Time to let the IRA defend itself while SF gets on with modern economic policy that people actually want to hear.