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Dublin Report New leader alone won’t buoy Fine Gael’s fortunes

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By John Kelly

By the time you read this, the Fine Gael Party will almost certainly have elected its new leader, the successor to the hapless John Bruton.

The real problem for the Fine Gael party is not its leadership, however. The problem is the party itself. A new leader is unlikely to change its electoral prospects.

But then, Fine Gael is not the only Irish party with a problem. They all share it to greater or lesser degrees. They seek votes uneasily in a new Ireland that few seem to understand. The Irish political scene has changed so greatly and so comprehensively as to have left many of the main political players bewildered.

The late Sean Lemass, the Fianna Fail taoiseach who did more to push the Republic into the 20th century than any other Irishman, pithily put the Labor Party in perspective when he said, "The Labor Party will always wrestle with its conscience — and the Labor Party will always win."

Many among the Irish electorate are now asking themselves what the Fine Gael Party is really all about in the wake of the final heave against Bruton.

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Many, I suspect, will have already come to the conclusion that the only real reason that Fine Gael exists is because Fianna Fail does. The corollary is probably just as true. Of course, neither would be there at all if it had not been for the Civil War.

That infamous and tragic split continues to manifest itself, sometimes in the most curious fashion.

One of the leading contenders for the Fine Gael leadership, former teacher Michael Noonan, from Limerick, signaled a major alteration in the traditional party policy on Northern Ireland.

He strongly underlined the nationalist history of the party and claimed that SDLP supporters in the North saw Fine Gael as the party with which it had the strongest affinity in the South.

"We’re a party with the generous nationalism that has given rise to the Good Friday agreement and I would certainly ensure that our position is not misunderstood," he said.

This marked a major shift from the perceived Bruton position. The former leader frequently disputed the Fianna Fail view that its main function was to represent Northern nationalists.

The man who employed the former republican Eoghan Harris as his adviser, traditionally took the view that the Irish government should represent both nationalists and unionists in its dealings with the British.

He believed it was impossible to make any progress in Northern Ireland unless the views of the unionists were not only understood but were also accommodated as much as feasible.

He was certainly not a pan-nationalist. He was much more neutral in his approach, more of a gentle persuader than a covert raider. He felt that no progress could be made in the North without taking the strongly held aspirations of both communities aboard.

Fianna Fail is not hugely different. But it is certainly much more prepared to take a nationalist line in its dealings with the British.

Apart from this rather significant statement by Noonan, there have been no major policy differences between the growing number of candidates for the Fine Gael leadership. Like most such heaves in Irish politics, the fight was almost entirely personal in nature.

Underlying all of it, however, was the party’s abysmal showing in the recent MRBI political poll and its persistent decline in popularity in recent years.

In the last seven general elections, Fine Gael has lost no less than 9 percentage points in first-preference votes. Apart from the fact that Fianna Fail has improved its position by comparison to its main rival, Fine Gael has also been badly hit by the increasing voting trend in favor of minor parties like the Greens, Sinn Fein, the Democratic Left and Progressive Democrats.

Between them, they now account for no less than 25 percent of the total vote.

While Fianna Fail must be content with its present position and may now actively contemplate an early general election before Fine Gael settles in under its new leader and before the full financial implications of joining the Euro currency are felt, it cannot be too happy about long-term indications.

The plain fact is that both of the major parties are losing their traditional support with the electorate. Another important consideration is that fewer voters are turning out in each successive election.

This is more prevalent among youth than in any other section of the population. In the last general election, 34 percent of the eligible Irish voters did not bother to vote at all.

The younger Irish generation, the main beneficiary of the so-called Celtic Tiger, is even less likely to vote than it is to attend religious worship.

The differences between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, such as they are, are hardly perceived by any. Civil War politics are dead and buried with O’Leary in the grave, to paraphrase William Butler Yeats.

The shift toward a pan-nationalist stance, rather than Bruton’s more neutral approach, is unlikely to have the slightest effect.

In any case, events in Northern Ireland are now moving of their own volition. Even with Bruton as Fine Gael leader, there was no lessening of the bipartisan approach by both major parties. In fact, it was greatly to his credit that this continued. No leading Irish politician attempted to make any voting capital out of the peace process.

None are any more likely to do so in the future.

Whoever becomes Fine Gael leader faces huge challenges, not alone from Fianna Fail, but also from minority party supporters and, most of all, from the rapidly changing political scene.

The stated aim of all of the contenders is that they want to lead their party into government after the next general election. To achieve this, they will have to pull back a significant Fianna Fail lead while fending off the challenge posed by the minority groups.

Most of all, they will have to be personable enough to hammer the strong individual appeal enjoyed by Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.

The only thing that can really undermine his appeal are possible damaging revelations before either of the two public tribunals. Without such revelations, Fine Gael is likely to continue to drift in the political doldrums, new leader or no new leader.

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