6 June 2002 Edition

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Kenny to lead Fine Gael

As we go to print, Fine Gael has announced that Enda Kenny is to be its new party leader. Banished to the beck benches after he was beaten by Michael Noonan last year, Kenny has now come back to wrest control of what is widely regarded as a poisoned chalice.

Young Fine Gael, the youth group that brought you a poster of a man and a woman having sex for the Nice Treaty, with the legend "yes, yes, yes", had to do some growing up this week when they found that their motion for democratic elections of the party leadership had been unceremoniously put aside.

Despite a successful Fine Gael Árd Fheis motion to the contrary, the consideraby culled parliamentary party, its TDs, MEPs and senators, decided that it would elect the new party leader without any input from the rest of the allegedly 25,000-strong organisation.

The eventual selection on Wednesday of Kenny, who beat off Richard Bruton, Phil Hogan and Gay Mitchell for the leadership, was emblematic of the Golden Circle mentality that reduces the major decisions of political life in this country to whisperings in the Dáil Bar.

Kenny declared that "Fine Gael's mourning period is over" but he has already had a lack lustre and inauspicious start.

A generally destructive leadership


If the party's organisation is shambolic, it is Fine Gael's ideological somersaults that have dealt the most severe and lasting blow to its credibility and its membership

On 31 August 1934, Professor James Hogan, an outspoken critic of the IRA, resigned from Fine Gael, citing 'the generally destructive leadership of its president' (Eoin O'Duffy) for his departure. That act springs to mind when witnessing the current crisis facing that same, though irretrievably lapsed, organisation.

That analogy highlights an underlying, regressive thread in Fine Gael - that 'generally destructive' tendency to invest in the leadership of the party the 'ownership' of the entire party itself. Although universal to political organisations, for Fine Gael this problem is particularly acute.

When O'Duffy reigned, akin to other fascist movements in Europe, the focus was resolutely on the singular leader, the strong man, with an inevitable and consequent loss of internal democracy. O'Duffy was known to have paid young lads to turn up in their blue shirts to rallies. Along with free meals and transport, his tactics ensured large meetings, but the ideological vacuum these perks made up for would lead to serious problems for Ireland's first facscists.

Today's Fine Gael, the smaller, dumbed down version, could hardly be accused of fascism - it's hard to accuse it of having any fixed opinions - but it is certain that a few perks won't make up for the ideological vacuum this time around. Nor will a new leader.

'Likeability, marketability and credibility', were the criteria against which leadership hopefuls would be judged, according to Senator Maurice Manning, who spoke at the party's election post-mortem at Citywest Hotel in Dublin last week, arguably the worst criteria the party could devise to chart its progress forward.

Alan Dukes, Nora Owen, Jim Mitchell, Charlie Flanagan and Brian Hayes were all, arguably, likeable, marketable and credible politicians, but they still lost their seats. John Bruton and Michael Noonan were 'likeable, marketable and credible' enough to become leaders of one of the biggest parties on this island. Michael Noonan may have shaded Bertie Ahern in the Prime Time TV debate, but outside that Donnybrook studio, who ever doubted that Fianna Fáil was streets ahead?

"We're still looking for the black box," defeated Laois/Offaly TD Charlie Flanagan reported as the Fine Gael inquest into its electoral catastrophe got underway. Twenty-two percent of the general election first preference vote translated into only 19% of Leinster House seats for the party, cutting its number from 54 to 31. Twelve out of its 19 frontbenchers gone, nine out of the 12 Dublin Dáil seats too - the potential membership decline is untold.

Averaging in the mid-30s as a percentage of first preferance votes under Liam Cosgrave, Fine Gael's vote peaked during the Garrett Fitzgerald years at 40%. Since his leadership ended in 1987, the party has steadily wound down.

In 1994, a commission on renewal established by John Bruton found Fine Gael to be "weak, demotivated, lacking morale, direction and focus".

In 2001, Seán Donlon - one of Michael Noonan's top advisors, who has now left the party - Pat Ridge, a party trustee, and management consultant Patrick Coveney examined Fine Gael's party structures, and concluded that radical restructuring was needed.

But if the party's organisation is shambolic, it is the party's ideological somersaults that have dealt the most severe and lasting blow to its credibility and its membership.

Ageing, conservative and largely rural, Fine Gael loyalists may be somewhat bewildered at being described as 'left of centre'. Gay Mitchell talked about Christian Solidarity - whatever that means to the public. Cracking down on crime was the ticket for fellow candidate in the leadership race, Phil Hogan. Family values was the mantra of ex-leader Michael Noonan, and sacking thousands from the Civil Service was former Deputy Leader, Jim Mitchell's impromptu pledge during the run-up to 17 May.

Last month, the talk was of tax breaks for crêches, cash grants for first time house buyers, compensation for Eircom speculators and deregulated taxi drivers, compassion for the marginalised in Irish society, yet we are now told that Fine Gael is lurching to the right. Michael Noonan was even accused of 'greening' the most commitedly Free State party in Ireland when he proclaimed, in his acceptance speech of May last year, "we are a nationalist party, outward-looking and generous".

Sleaze even popped up as an issue in Fine Gael's election armoury some days before the campaign ended. A matter of days was too short a period for a full exploration of the Telenor/Esat $50,000 donation to Fine Gael in 1995, information it kept from the Moriarty Tribunal, or of Michael Lowry's (the man who would have been leader) dodgy €190,500 loan in 1996 from Fine Gael financier David Austin.

Following a period of spectacular abundance in the party's finances during its 1994 to 1997 period in office, Fine Gael feigned a 'ban' on corporate donations following Noonan's election as leader in 2001. With cheques to the party arriving through the personal rather than corporate accounts of sponsors, even this facile effort to con the electorate by technically circumventing the term 'corporate' may now be overturned. All contenders to the party leadership have agreed that ending the ban might be necessary.

Charismatic leadership is all well and good, but it cannot ever substitute for a party's identity. Not only did Fine Gael forgotten this in the drive to elect a new general before the Dáil resumed today, Thursday 6 June, but they have forgotten how to be a party too.

Tweedledum and Tweedledee politics has always been the context in which Fine Gael has prospered, that old binary it shared with Fianna Fáil. From the Civil War onward, the Blueshirts filled the spaces in which the Soldiers of Destiny were unwelcome.

But now, far from the days when it was a distinct party of big business and of the right wing in the early 20th century, Fine Gael can no longer present itself as a reproving mirror image of Fianna Fáil. In policy terms, the main parties of the right are now indistinguishable. The voters know that like Coca-Cola and Pepsi, the label may be different, but both parties taste the same - market forces have dictated the winner.

For now, the voters have decided Fianna Fáil is the Real Thing. Fine Gael's latest undemocratic antics will do little to inspire confidence in its failing brand.

If the party's organisation is shambolic, it is Fine Gael's ideological somersaults that have dealt the most severe and lasting blow to its credibility and its membership

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