“It was the best of time, it was the worst of times … it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair”
(A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens)
Congratulations first to Michael D. Higgins, who will be deemed elected as Ireland’s ninth president this afternoon. As someone who has spent a political career with a broad view of Irish culture and society, I’m confident he will serve us well. Congratulations also to Patrick Nulty, who won the bye-election, a man very far from my own politics, though one who will be a strong contributor in the Dáil and an interesting dynamic in this coalition. It was the first time since July 1982 that a candidate from a government party won a bye-election.
Yesterday’s election results were undeniably a bad day for Fine Gael. Gay Mitchell’s fourth place finish at 6.4% was by a good stretch the lowest the party has polled to date in any national election, with the 17% Austin Currie received in the 1990 presidential bid the next worst. In Dublin West, Eithne Loftus also finished fourth, though with a more respectable 15%. I would commiserate both candidates, and indeed all candidates in these elections. Particularly in the case of the presidential campaign, it was a very public and difficult campaign for them.
While the result for the party could have been devastating in 1990, when Currie’s performance led to the resignation of Alan Dukes as party leader, or had this occurred any time before the February election, where Fine Gael won 36% of the vote, becoming the largest party in terms of both votes and seats for the first time. That the party could win the most number of Dáil seats in its history and then poll its lowest result, requires a more complex relationship and response.
I think some within the party misinterpreted the results of the February general election. It was a vote of support for a manifesto promising reform and competent government, and for the strong team of prospective ministers. But having come so recently to the party, the general election results did not mean that 36% of the electorate were now dependable Fine Gael voters. There was no good reason to assume on the basis of this result that it was now Fine Gael’s turn to be the dominant party for 79 years. In the selection of the presidential candidate, some within the party seemed to work on the assumption that having got into a habit of voting Fine Gael earlier this year, people would naturally come out and vote for the Fine Gael candidate for president, putting the party on a starting platform at that level and with that lead on a first count, transfers would inevitably put them over the line. As it was Fine Gael’s best chance to date to win the presidency (and next to 1966, it almost certainly was), many within the party felt it natural that it should be someone who had served the party well and loyally through many years. Gay Mitchell was electorally successful at the time when Fine Gael’s popularity was low, one of three TDs to retain their seats in Dublin in 2002. He had a strong electoral track record till then, not losing a single public poll, though he had come fourth in the leadership contest after the 2002 election.
It was the party convention that selected him, with a broad base of the parliamentary party, councillor and the national executive. And Mitchell was encouraged to seek the party’s nomination by a number of TDs, as well as by former party leader and Taoiseach, John Bruton.
But many of the things which Gay Mitchell used publicly to present himself as a the best candidate to the Fine Gael Presidential Convention were things that made him a less appealing candidate to the electorate at large. He appealed to the fact that he had been a party member from the age of 16, whereas another of the candidates had only joined that week. While a reference to a mere 100 days as a party member might have dissuaded other party members, it means little to the public at large, the overwhelming number of them are not members of Fine Gael, and would not consider joining, even if they would vote for us. We have to avoid falling into the trap of thinking that either personalities or policies are good or bad because of their relationship to different parties. This is perhaps most true of the office of president, given that office-holders are expected to sever formal links with their party, but it is true more generally
The problem with focusing so much on an appeal to party members brings to mind the problem with a focus on Buy Irish as a means of economic development; just as a country’s industry will not become rich relying on its compatriots, but by being good enough that others will buy them too, someone cannot win a 50%+1 election relying on their own party’s base. Statements during the campaign that Mitchell would be a good choice because he would be able to work closely with Enda Kenny as Taoiseach probably fell entirely on deaf ears because of people’s perception of the nature of the role of president.
Mitchell’s appeal to Christian democracy held sway within certain sections of Fine Gael, but it immediately turned off large sections of the wider public. This is something we should certainly take heed from. While the airing of particular points of view in the Christian democratic tradition did not affect the party that much in February, without being part of a broader package of economic competence and reform to balance it, it did have an effect.
The most important thing I think we should get from this, to avoid the hubris of thinking that at 36% in the election, and still at around that figure in opinion polls, that the public at large support us because we are Fine Gael, rather than because of what we proposed and are doing in government. In contrasting the results between February and October, and indeed from the party’s electoral history since 1933, I don’t think it is even fair to consider yesterday’s vote the core Fine Gael support. This should not in any respect affect Enda Kenny’s strength as Taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael. And because we are still doing well in polls, and because I believe the country will be in better place in 2016, I would not really hold to the “despair” in the epithet above.
There is a similar lesson from the 30th Amendment Bill, the proposal to allow for Oireachtas Inquiries, and in this case, Labour also fell foul of the trap of hubris. We don’t yet know if it will be defeated, but it seems more likely than not. During the general election campaign, both parties promised citizens’ engagement with the reform of the Constitution and the political process. We are delivering on this, with the Constitutional Convention in the new year. But these Amendments could easily have been part of that, and I think it should now be considered bad practice in most instances, outside of very technical amendments like that on Local Government in 1999, to schedule referendums on the same day as other elections.