Sunday, October 23, 2011

President Gallagher: What it Means for the Other Parties

I'm in Sydney fighting jetlag, and it seemed like something of a bad dream when I stepped off the plane to read my wife's response to the obligatory "Landed! All Well! Plane Didn't Crash" text message. "Great," she texted. "Gallagher on 40% tomorrow." Well if the twenty degree heat at six in the morning didn't blow me down, then that one certainly did. We all didn't expect this now, did we.

So everyone who is "well read," "politically savvy," Phoenix reading, #vinb watching and into, like, their current affairs is now scratching their heads, and glancing awkwardly around as if looking for a back door somewhere. Well, there's no back door, and we were wrong. The 39% in RedC last week was no blip; the forensic stories about business mistakes had no effect; revelations about the Fianna Fáil past either sailed right over the heads of the electorate, or simply didn't matter. Now of course, there are many days to polling day, and it could turn around, but...well...I just can't see it. I concede to His Excellency, President of Ireland, Uachtaráin na hÉireann, Seán Gallagher.

In all fairness, he seems like a likeable enough chap. He did try to put a ridiculously good spin on what has been at best an average business career, but that's showbiz, right? And for all his dealings with membership of Fianna Fáil and all that, at least Dermot Ahern doesn't like him. And anyone that gets up Dermot Ahern's nose that much can't have too much wrong with him in my book.

For Fine Gael and Enda Kenny, it's abject disaster. Six months ago, the Presidency must have looked like an open goal. But between his meddling with the Pat Cox candidacy, and his animosity towards Mitchell, he's royally screwed this up. It won't finish him by any stretch of the imagination. It's only the Presidency, after all; and the Shinners didn't get in. But the honeymoon, as they say, is most definitely over, and he is in a vulnerable position entering a period of savage negotiating over what will be an excruciatingly difficult budget. The polls keep FG buoyant too, with the Sunday Times indicating that the Presidential numbers are nowhere near aligned with party numbers. FF are static, FG remain in the high thirties, and all is still right with the world. Presuming Kenny navigates the budget in December, the early months of 2012, when people start to feel the pinch of those cuts, may see popularity for the government diminish, and with it the popularity of Fine Gael. Should that happen, Kenny will do well to see out the year. Watch Phil Hogan's eyebrows, that's going to be the cue.

The Labour party will be sorely disappointed, as much ideologically as politically. Michael D is a great candidate, who has served his time, and is extremely popular. They'll all be personally disappointed for him. He could have done no more. It may be that this is the moment that Labour realise that they need to be far slicker in their marketing, far more aggressive in their fundraising, and that the end, ultimately, will justify the means if they are to some day gain power (corporate donations, hello?!). The alternative is to resign themselves to minority input into centrist-populist government every other coalition for the foreseeable future, because - to borrow a phrase from a previous election - there aren't enough people who *think* Labour, never mind *vote* Labour.

Fianna Fáil have seen no bounce in the polls with Gallagher's success, but he's showing them the way. They are all re-energised about their future, convinced that there is redemption for the party, that the brand is not actually that toxic - it was just the government and the people that were in it last time round were bad (awkward pause here as the pols look around at Micheal Martin, though at least he resigned, though it was really, really late in the day..). Not only that, but Sean Gallagher has proved that they can do it without becoming soppy bleeding heart neo-socialists (no, really, they mean it this time). They just have to give a message of positivity. Or something like that. And shave their heads (Brian Crowley in particular won't like that one!).

For David Norris - adieu, adieu, parting is such sweet sorrow! Mary Davis - early promise, faded soon, never showed. Dana - God Bless! And finally, to Martin McGuinness. I think it was an interesting experiment for Sinn Féin. Riding relatively high in the polls, with a strong, dynamic, recognised candidate, they were able to force a debate on the IRA and its past, and the willingness of "us down here" to move on. It was something of a broken record, I'm afraid. But the door to power across the island for Sinn Féin is a little more ajar than it had been six weeks ago, and they'll be pleased with that. They'd have liked 20%, I have no doubt, and - who knows - perhaps they'll get it.

A final thought - Sean Gallagher spent much of his life involved in politics, and from a very young age he built for himself the structures of a political career. He seems now to have managed - extraordinarily - to break from the party system within which he had built that edifice, and succeeded in winning the presidency. As Fianna Fáil rebuild themselves, buoyed by this proxy win, and as over the next few years Gallagher realises how impotent the Presidency really is (and a Fine Gael Taoiseach will make him realise that all the more), could he be tempted back to become the centerpiece (finance, perhaps) of a Fianna Fáil General Election Campaign in 2018 or 2019? Probably not. But stranger things have happened!

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