Monday, 15 February 2016

Election 2016 - Week 2 in review

"Long term economic plan... Keep the recovery going... Jean McConville. Right, this debate should be a piece of piss."
Welcome back! If you're still not bored to tears by this election campaign and are willing to read yet another opinion piece on it I heartily commend you. The campaign is well and underway now and yet, something curious is afoot; nothing has happened! Well, not nothing, but the campaign is lacking that 'game-changing moment' that you keep hearing commentators harp on about. Will the last full week bring it? Enda and Joan hope so but it remains to be seen. For now all we can do is look back at another week of indecision, frustration and ineptitude - all historical cornerstones of Irish politics!

Two Healy Raes for the price of one
"Imagine these two pints are Healy Raes - You'd want two, not one, right?"
Down here in Kerry, they're calling it Rae-nua. The Healy Rae "political service" is being expanded. Danny is joining his brother Michael on the general election ticket. But this is not a Miliband-esque example of sibling rivalry, oh no. The Healy Raes are running "together" in an operation not unlike that of two constituency members of a political party (Shock! Horror!). 

The Healy Raes are and aren't a lot of things but the one thing we can be sure that they are is the cutest of hoors. It may seem a strange move - won't they split the vote? Won't it put Michael's seat at risk? Don't they both appeal to the same demographic, i.e. disgruntled culchies? Well, they have a plan. Ever since the sitting independent TD Tom Fleming pulled out of the race last week, it looked like there would be no TD from the Killarney area in the running. This would mean Killarney and its hinterlands, the second most populous region in the county would have no candidate to hoover up all the precious local votes. There was a vacuum, and it was always going to be filled. 

Fianna Fáil were first out of the traps. According to the Irish Examiner, Cllr. Niall Kelleher (From Rathmore) and Senator Mark Daly (From Kenmare) urged party HQ to add them to the ticket and join John Brassil (From Ballyheigue) and Norma Moriarty (From Waterville) as Fianna Fáil Dáil nominees in Kerry. Both were rebuffed. Perhaps Fianna Fáil believe it would upset the nice symmetry they have. They have often boasted about having a man from North Kerry and a woman from South Kerry. Perhaps they felt Moriarty would be able to exploit the gap in Killarney given Killarney and Waterville are both part of the old Kerry South constituency (even though there is a good hour's drive between the two) Or, more likely perhaps, Fianna Fáil felt adding a candidate in the Killarney/East Kerry area might take from Brassil's vote and given that it looks like he'll be battling Arthur Spring of Labour (who is unlikely to perform well in Killarney) for the last seat in a tight contest, he needs all the help he can get. 

Whatever the reason, they kept their distance and so, like the cheetah in the long grass stalking the antelope, the Healy Raes pounced. The plan is to urge their supporters to give Danny their first preference in the Killarney area and Michael their second while to do vice-versa in every other area of Kerry. What looks like has happened is the Healy-Raes have decided to exploit Michael's increasing popularity in other parts of the county. When it was first announced the old Kerry North and Kerry South constituencies were no more and the county was to become a single constituency for the first time since 1933, many speculated that the Healy Raes would find it difficult to gain in a foothold in the unknown expanses of North Kerry. They had buttered enough in parsnips in their native part of the county, sure enough, but those in the North would be harder to lure over to the Healy Rae side. 

But all of that has proven to be mistaken. Even though Michael is not propping a government in exchange for constituency goodies like his father did between 1997-2002 and 2007-2011, he has carved out a niche for himself as the voice of the disaffected in rural Ireland. He consistently rails against (what he calls) "the most anti-rural Ireland government in history" and it seems to have struck a chord. Post offices closing, garda stations closing, the (supposed though unsubstantiated) rise in rural crime; all these are issues Healy Rae has latched onto. Never mind the fact that his family owns a post office (conflict of interest say what?) or that his family's oftentimes outlandish and morally questionable views have caused much consternation in the 'Dublin meeja', Healy Rae has seen his popularity soar and commentators such as Ivan Yates have predicted that he could win the highest percentage of votes of any candidate in the country. 

Allied with his fame as the apparent voice for the voiceless in rural Ireland, much of Healy Rae's success is, one has to speculate, down to good old fashioned political pragmatism. He mentioned on Radio Kerry on Thursday that North Kerry based councillors Sam Locke (of Tralee) and Dan Kiely (of Listowel) had been 'helping him out' for this campaign. Healy Rae might know every 'back-road and bohereen' in South Kerry but canvassing in North Kerry might have initially felt as challenging as canvassing in Tijuana. So, an alliance of sorts with two friendly councillors with vast knowledge of the area was a wise thing to do. They'll have been able to tell him everything about the area from what issues are foremost on people's minds and areas where the three incumbents (Martin Ferris, Jimmy Deenihan and Arthur Spring) are weak and strong. It gave them the chance to craft their battle-plan and, judging by their success, it seems they've executed it perfectly

So, down to the big question - will it work? Will Danny Healy Rae be able to exploit his own popularity in the Killarney and East Kerry area (Don't forget, he topped the poll and his number of first preferences was double the quota for the Killarney municipal area in the 2014 Local Elections) and his brother's burgeoning popularity in the other parts of the county? It is a long shot, certainly, but it is one worth trying. If Danny doesn't get in it wouldn't hurt his reputation much (has cute hoorishness ever hurt a cute hoor's reputation?) and might actually enhance his reputation locally in anticipation of him running in a general election again. It might normalise the idea of two Healy-Raes running so for the next general election the electorate would be more accustomed to the idea. Nor would it severely impact Michael's chances of being elected given he's a dead cert. And, if Danny does get in, it would be the political coup of the election. It's not quite win-win, but it's certainly a no-lose strategy.

Would a Fianna Fáil - Fine Gael coalition actually be alright?
"Investment in a cure for male-pattern baldness and the coalition is yours, Taoiseach."

On radio shows and Twitter, and in newsaper columns and television debates, the prospect of the aul enemies Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael entering into coalition is being salaciously whispered. It all makes sense. The numbers, the ideology, the parties' make-up. Sure, Fianna Fáil like to paint themselves as interested in a more equitable and 'fairer' society than the Blueshirts while Fine Gael regard themselves as Hardy to the Soldiers of Destiny's Laurel; more sensible, more mature and the crowd that clean up the other's mess. But they have much more in common than Fine Gael do with their current coalition partners Labour. It's only the tricky fact of history that's stopping them

The prospect of the two coalescing has become all the more pertinent given the government's hitherto erratic campaign performance. The expected poll upsurge, due to the supposed strength of the government's 'Stability vs Chaos' message, has not materialised and both Fine Gael and Labour have either stagnated or lost ground in the last week and a half. The latest Red C poll shows Fine Gael support is down to 28% (from 30%) while Labour remain at 8%. While the margin of error in the poll is 3%, the fact that is the latest in a long line of polls telling a similar story and that it's only a week and a half to go to the big day, you imagine it has set off a few alarm bells at Fine Gael HQ.

The current coalition is unelectable. The numbers just aren't there. A rough trawl through the newspages will tell you most analysts expect Fine Gael to pick up somewhere around 55 seats while Labour will get somewhere around 10-12. Given they need 79 seats to win a majority they are a long way off. They would need the help of ten or more independents or a smaller party (Renua, Soc Dems) and half a dozen independents to make it to that number. And a government like that just isn't tenable. 

And so, the spectre of a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil coalition looms large. I actually wrote about this back in November when assessing Fianna Fáil electoral chances. Back then, I speculated that Fianna Fáil entering into coalition with Fine Gael as the junior partner could be the final nail in the coffin for the party's chances of regaining its once preeminent position as Ireland's grand old party. The grassroots would revolt and its old roguish lustre, which served it so well during the Haughey and Ahern days, would be gone. 

But the issue hasn't gone away. The fact that a Fine Gael- Fianna Fáil government looks like the only viable option hasn't been lost on reporters and journalists. Both Kenny and Martin have been asked about it in the past few days and both have been intentionally ambiguous. Will it happen? It might. Given, as I have already said, it seems to be the only viable opition, perhaps both parties will come to some sort of deal when the Dáil meets again in March. Nobody wants to be seen as the party who forced Ireland into a second election in the space of a few months. An alternative might be Fianna Fáíl supporting a Fine Gael minority government in exchange for action on a few 'red line' issues as Wille O'Dea mentioned last year.

But a question we haven't really asked ourselves is this; what exactly would a FG-FF coalition be like? A world where Enda Kenny is Taoiseach and Micheál Martin Tánaiste. Where Michael Noonan is Minister for Finance and Michael McGrath Minister for Public Expenditure. It makes sense, doesn't it? In fact, I'm not utterly aghast at the prospect of it. Now why would I, as self-declared leftie, say that? Given the two parties' manifestos and election pledges I would strenuously disagree with this prospective government's policies. But the one thing it would bring, the one thing we have never had, is a sense of normalisation in Irish politics. There would be an ideological fracture between the government and main opposition parties that runs a long a right/left divide for the first time in the history of the state. It could mobilise the left to work together. It could make Dáil sessions a proper spectacle. We won't know until we give it a go, eh?

Winner of the week
The people of Kerry. What will the expansion of the Healy Rae political service mean for us? Super-roundabouts? Post offices on every street corner? Security systems that shoot lasers at rural burglars? The prospects are endless.

Loser of the week
Joan Burton. Last week, she had to deal with Alan Kelly's arrogance but this week she had to deal with something much more intractable; her own ineptitude. That might sound a little harsh on Joan but a week in which a national newspaper leads with a story on you being on the brink of losing your own seat and and where you ungraciously bomb in the first televised debate of the campaign will go down as something of a write-off. Interestingly, if she does fail to retain her seat she will be third Tánaiste in a row to lose out (After Mary Coughlan in 2011 and Michael McDowell in 2011). A Tánaiste-less hat-trick? Don't bet against it. 

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