All politics is local, the late Tip O’Neill reputedly said. That’s especially true in a country as small as Ireland.
Local concerns often influence the national debate at least as much as what happens in the Dáil affects life on your street or crossroads and it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to argue that not only have we just had a general election, we’ve also had forty local elections.
The Taoiseach’s outburst about whingers a week before polling day was – he claimed later – aimed solely at Fianna Fáil councillors in Castlebar. It’s entirely possible he was telling the truth. Perhaps he really was just fed up with local accusations that having a Mayo Taoiseach hasn’t actually been of much benefit to Mayo.
Which or whether, Enda went off-message and that wasn’t a good idea for a man used to being stage-managed within an inch of his political life and who tends not to think or operate well on his feet.
Having a go at “whingers” proved a fatal slip at a crucial point in the campaign. It might well have been an entirely local jibe but Enda Kenny isn’t just a local TD and the Taoiseach’s language summed up for many the arrogance and disconnect of the outgoing government and it also crystallised the hollowness of the slogan “Let’s keep the recovery going” at a time when so many of us have yet to feel any recovery.
The maxim about all politics being local came to mind for me two weeks before polling day, when Enda’s Big Blue Bus rolled into the heart of Avondhu country and the Taoiseach addressed Fermoy’s Fine Gael faithful.
Things got off to a rocky start when The Dear Leader mounted the steps of the Grand Hotel and met one local Anti-Austerity Alliance member. Said pedlar of comfort food for angry people refused to shake Enda’s hand – ungraciously, I thought – and the Taoiseach’s minders proceeded to lock down the Grand’s River Room lest it be infiltrated by “undesirables”. As a local undesirable myself, I was left stuck outside the slightly-ajar door, straining to hear what turned out to be a dreary and uninspiring address.
Two of the three Fine Gael candidates for Cork East, Tom Barry TD and the parachuted-in, recently Labour, Councillor Noel McCarthy, sat unhappily at the top of the room. Neither seemed very comfortable in each other’s company.
It was, to quote the late Doctor Bowie, a godawful small affair. The most upbeat part of Enda’s speech was talk of this financial big shot, that multinational CEO and the other multinational boss, all of whom had been very impressed by Ireland’s recovery and even moreso by Enda’s Chance the Gardener homespun wisdom.
The rest of the message was fear. Go out there and tell them we can’t afford to throw away the recovery, he told Fermoy’s Blueshirt faithful. He didn’t quite warn that Fianna Fáil and Sinn Fein would actually bring about a zombie apocalypse, but it was a grim, gloomy address and the mood in the room seemed sombre and pessimistic.
In the wake of the Government parties’ disastrous election result, one backbencher told the Irish Times’ Fiach Kelly of hearing a senior Fine Gael minister predict in the Dáil bar that all three of their candidates in Cork East would be elected. Not by a long shot: in the end, only outgoing TD David Stanton held his seat.
An angry Tom Barry went on RTÉ’s Drivetime and told Mary Wilson that he blames Enda Kenny for his – Barry’s – losing his seat and called on Kenny to step down as party leader and Taoiseach.
It could certainly be argued that running three candidates in Cork East split the vote, but it’s worth noting that the first-timer Noel McCarthy got a thousand first preferences more than Barry did. Personally, I think the main reason Tom Barry wasn’t re-elected is he was – at best – a mediocre local TD who seemed gifted with an unerring ability to hit the national headlines for all the wrong reasons.
In the last year, Tom was named in a Prime Time special for forgetting to mention on the Dáil Register of Members’ Interests that he had a couple of company directorships. He made the front of the Irish Mail on Sunday for saying that he opposed rent certainty – in the middle of the greatest housing crisis in the history of the State – because he himself owns ten properties.
Prior to the debate on the 2013 Protection of Life in Pregnancy bill, Barry wrote to Cardinal Brady and the Papal Nuncio asking whether it would be okay for him to vote or would he be excommunicated. Imagine that: an Irish parliamentarian asking agents of a foreign government for permission to vote.
Most infamously, on the night of the Protection of Life in Pregnancy debate, Tom – by his own admission – visited the Dáil bar but he said he did not drink “excessively”. However, in the middle of a parliamentary debate on the reproductive rights of women, he thought it a good idea to grab his female colleague Áine Collins TD and drag her onto his lap. This was captured on camera and the incident became known as #Lapgate. All politics is local but coverage of that little misadventure went international.
All of that said, Tom Barry won’t be the only one laying the blame for failure squarely at Kenny’s door. Locally and nationally, Fine Gael made an unholy mess of their election campaign. Candidates reported back to HQ that people on the doorsteps were very angry and parroting “Let’s keep the recovery going” was just making them angrier. The reply from HQ was the focus groups liked the slogan and therefore it must be working.
All politics is local – especially national politics – but it remains to be seen whether the Taoiseach’s position is fatally wounded and whether one disgruntled former local TD just fired the first shot in the 2016 rebellion.