Monday, April 30, 2007

INSIDE POLITICS - BERTIE'S SUNDAY SWOOP

Like Enda Kenny I was caught on the hop by the pre-dawn swoop by Bertie Ahern yesterday morning. The FG leader was only in Mayo. Unfortunately for me I was in Lisbon without a computer.

You have to play with whatever hand you are dealt. And so I wrote the analysis piece below in a cafe in the Baixa using my mobile phone. It's not exactly a mobile. It's a Nokia 9300 smart phone. It's the size of mobile phones from circa 1999 and opens to reveal a very very small QWERTY keyboard. You can't touch type with it and it's hard going when you have chunky fingers like me... but in an emergency, it's great.


Sorry for being so boring about the technical details but one of the great things about blogger.com is that you can post your scribbling by email. So it;s great when you are in an area with internet connections as zippy as a tranquilised three-toed sloth.

And here's the piece I tapped out on it in great haste (verging on panic) yesterday. Apologies for unspotted typos!

Ireland woke up yesterday morning to discover that the tactics of the pre-dawn police raid had been transferred to the world of Irish politics.
 
As the citizens rubbed sleep from their eyes, they opened their curtains to see a changed landscape. Like a fresh fall of snow, almost every lamp-post in the country has now been comandeered and festooned with somebody's beaming portrait.
 
And talk of a surprise move by Bertie Ahern. Five years ago - without warning - he arrived into an almost empty Dáil chamber late at night during an adjournment debate to dissolve the Dáil.
 
This time round the chicanery was even more convoluted. For months he has strung people along about the actual date of the election. He was adamant that the election would not be held on a Friday. But besides the Taoiseach dropping a couple of hints about the Dáil returning for at least a week after Easter, there was no real certainty about the date. Most zeroed in on May 24 but with caveats and qualifications. For when Bertie Ahern is playing a tight game he tends to use a stapler to make sure his cards are close to his chest.
 
The big surprise wasn't May 24 but the dawn raid on Áras an Uachtaráin. In hindsight it makes perfect sense of course. The only piece of legislation that was essential from a credibility perspective was the Criminal Justice Bill, which passed all stages in the Dáil on Tuesday.
 
From that moment the clock was ticking. The minimum time allowed for a campaign is three weeks. And so when it wasn't called on Thursday, we knew that Thursday May 17th was a goner.
 
One of the curious anomalies of the Irish electoral system is that strict rules and limits apply to spending during the election campaign. But before it's called, parties can spend any amount, infinite amounts is they have them.
 
That's why it seems that every billboard and poster site in the country has been given over to those messianic (and photoshopped) images of Bertie for the past month. That's why Fianna Fail favours minimum campaigns to allow it maximise its pre-campaign campaign spending, if you follow my drift.
 
Most commentators assumed it would be Tuesday or Wednesday of this week when Bertie would go to the country, to allow a bare three weeks. But in the event, there's now 25 days between the opening and closing of the race.
 
And why it makes sense is that the President was leaving for a trip abroad yesterday. While the Taoiseach could have signalled the dissolution of the Dáil to the Council of State in Mary McAleese's absence, that would have seemed shallow and mean-spirited for such a formal and serious duty.
 
But then, you would tend to think that Mr Ahern might have almost had a change of heart after seeing the poor showing for his party in the latest opinion poll on Friday. But there's a school of thought (and a persuasive one) within Fianna Fáil that believes that the party needed to go at the earliest possible moment. They argue that in 2007 the name of the game would be about cutting your losses. For them, even May 24 was too late - it should have been May 17or 18.
 
The notion of a strongly regrouped opposition has been trending since the local and European elections. After a swerve back to the Government last autumn, the momentum has seemed to swing back to the Mullingar Accord parties again.
 
The latest national poll suggests that Fine Gael is breathing down Fianna Fáil's neck but that scenario - huge FG gains; FF wipeout - isn't really borne out by the Red C constituency opinion polls conducted for Thomas Crosbie Holdings titles.
One opinion poll does not an election make. But the trends - and the unmistakable vibes being transmitted by the growing self-confidence of Enda Kenny and Pat Rabbitte - all point to one of the great political clichés being flogged to death in the next few weeks ... yes, it's going to be too close to call.
 
Arguably, since Alan Duke's Tallaght Strategy of 1997, Irish politics has not been characterised by a clash of ideas; rather a clash of personalities, styles and credibility. When you compare economic policies, for example, the parties have all converged into the centre and agree the same fundamental principles (low taxes, both personal and corporate). Sure there are differences (stamp duty, auction politics etc) but they are nuanced - most are so subtle to be indistinguishable.
 
When it comes to crime, the three mainsstream parties are all slurping out of the same trough, out-toughing each other. The proof of that particular pudding is that both FG and Labour tacitly approved Michael McDowell's hardline criminal justice legislation by abstaining when the vote was called in the Dáil last Tuesday.
 
It's only in health where there's a bitter row over Mary Harney's plans to build private clinics on public land that we see real gap in terms of thinking and ideology.
 
Is all that sameness and uniformity healthy for democracy?
 
The choice that faces the electorate is akin to the choice between two banks or two mobile phone operators. In some of their policy choices, parties have been too influenced by focus groups, running scared of alienating the massive swathe of innately conservative and careful voters who occupy the middle ground. It's for that reason, I'd argue, that Sinn Féin and the Greens are doing so well. Each has an easily identifiable, clearly distinctive, message that brooks no ambiguity.
 
People forget that for all his undoubted charisma Bertie Ahern achieved only 39% of the vote in 1997. That was exactly the same as Albert Reynolds five years earlier. Why was Reynolds considered a disaster in 1992 and Ahen a triumph in 1997? Improved and ruthless vote management gave the party a huge seat bounce.
 
Will this be as bad as '92 or as disastrous as 1982 when Charles Haughey almost allowed FG become the largest party in the State for the first time?
 
It's fascinating to see that in spite of his travails and blunders during BertiGate, Mr Ahern is still his party's greatest asset. Mr Kenny will struggle even now to convince people that he has the mettle for Taoiseach whereas Mr Ahern can just point to his track record. Having said that. the FG leader has travelled a long way.
 
Of course, there'a a presidential flavour to all parliamentary elections these times. For FG, its biggest project has been to build Mr Kenny up. For all his mercurial abilities as a debater, there were doubts about Mr Rabbitte's populist appeal. But if he's not loved, he is respected, and that's backed up by the deference accorded to him on the streets.
Michael McDowell also personifies the PDs. In survey after survey people profess to despise or loathe him. But like Nicholas Sarkozy he sets out to be deliberately divisive or provocative because he knows that at the same time as he alienates some, he attracts others. But will it be enough to save his party from the meltdown that has been widely predicted?
 
For SF, it is Gerry Adams's face we will see though he's not a candidate and not as major a player in Southern politics as he likes to think. The Greens will be only party that will trade on its message rather than on Trevor Sargent's image. Both parties will do well, so well in fact that they will prevent a clear-cut overall result either way. The green message - be it republican or environmental - has huge potency with the Irish electorate right now.
 
If Fianna Fail win through, it will mean Bertie Ahern will be the longest leader in office since de Valera. Perhaps people have not yet tired of Bertie but have tired of his ministers. One of the imponderables (until polling day that is) is if the Government retains enough affection or if people have finally tired of this administration.
The picture will be complicated. We now face 25 days of claim, counterclaim, attack and counter-attack. What is certain is that on May 24 the people will speak. It's only then will we know if the status quo has prevailed or has fallen. Or, more likely. that we're entering into the limbo of a hung Dáil.

1 comment:

Young European said...

That's what guys like you Harry always say, that it's going to be very close or it's going to be a hung Dáil. It's already plain to see that Fine Gael and Labour will walk it. They may need the support of the Greens but Bertie and his buddies are on the way out. That message has been very clear for months. Get over it!