Monday, October 24, 2011

An Ordinary Man: Why Fine Gael Voters are Voting for Seán Gallagher

Today's IPSOS/MRBI poll for the Irish Times confirms other polls from the weekend. Sean Gallagher's lead is significant. What is perhaps more interesting is the voter distribution. More Fine Gael candidates are voting for Sean Gallagher than for Gay Mitchell. This is by no means due to the party's dislike for their man - though some would have preferred Mairead McGuinness or Pat Cox, and Mitchell has some difficulty beyond the Pale. It is instead due to a vapid core in centrist politics in Ireland, a reactionary rather than ideological imperative, a case of following to where power is likely to be rather than achieving legitimate power through genuine leadership.

In many respects this is not unique to Ireland. American politics is defined by high rhetoric and vague promises, where the candidate's desperate search for substance characterises each election. Notwithstanding her own absence of real ideas, Sarah Palin's coruscating critique on the Obama administration "How's that hopey-changey stuff workin' out for ya?" summed up American politics very well. India, the world's largest democracy, has effectively disenfranchised its educated elite, as they represent such a minority. Whether this is a threat to democracy there remains to be seen - and perhaps, though this is not the subject of this article, it explains why the influence of corporations and private industry is increasing both in Indian and other democracies.

Jim Hacker of Yes Minister once said of his electors "...I am their leader; I must follow them." In essence, this characterises where Irish politics has come. Fianna Fáil in particular were the first to deny legitimate policy discussion and debate, and moved instead to soundbyte politics, handshaking and baby-kissing en route to inoffensive election victories during the Celtic Tiger era. There were no substantive discussions, and when there were, no one was listening.

People simply didn't care about politics, but - crucially - they did care about identity. People cared about who they were, and, by extension, who represented them. People cared, and do care, about people who are "like me". Sean Gallagher doesn't quite have the polish of a Gay Mitchell, or even a Martin McGuinness. Whatever you think of their politics, Mitchell is a career politician in a perfect suit, and McGuinness is a slightly scary career military general. Neither of those guys are "like me". Michael D Higgins is an intellectual, an artist, and a visionary - again, he's not "like me". Seán Gallagher's a decent skin, who's got some sort of education, with some modestly successful business ventures, and a tie that doesn't always fit right. And just "like me" he's not quite perfect. Just as "we" are a little fat, a little short, a little ugly, a little dim, he is a little blind. He's patently not perfect. And that, for "me", *is* perfect. Bertie Ahern fit that mold as well, the slightly dodgy former Taoiseach. As Eddie Hobbs put it once, we Irish 'like our politicians just a little bit bent.'

The problem for Fianna Fáil was that once the tide went out in terms of the economy, there was no ideological anchor to hold its vote. In essence, if the contest becomes one of personality, populism, and likeability, then in bad times people will turn to any other option that seems credible, presuming that the incumbent "lot" caused the problem. Fine Gael, in order to seize power, turned itself into a copy of Fianna Fáil in order to be seen as that credible alternative, then waited for the crash. The election in 2007 came about six to twelve months too early. Had the pain of the imminent recession taken hold, Fine Gael would likely have taken power at that stage - as it happened, they came very close - within a half dozen seats or so - of taking power with Labour.

Speaking of Labour, let's think about them for a minute. When the economy did well, they did OK. When the economy did badly, they did OK. Very little deviation. Their vote has improved this time, but they are still not achieving anywhere near the levels needed for a significant breakthrough. On the other hand, they are less likely to suffer a dramatic fall in support should things not work out. This is because Labour have more of an ideological anchor that can hold their vote. Noel Whelan has argued that there is no such thing as a "core Fianna Fáil vote", this atavistic group of people who would vote for Beelzebub himself were he in Fianna Fáil. I agree. But Labour, on the other hand, have an ideological core that is more difficult for certain people to move away from. Whether this means, more generally, that people are less idealistic, or ideologically driven, I don't know. They are certainly less ideological than political parties and their activists, and certainly less than political journalists and columnists, who tend to analyse based on substance and policy rather than genuine politics.

So parties who are successful create for themselves an image of populism, of "we're just like you", and succeed or fail on that basis. Fine Gael voters are not, really, Fine Gael voters, but rather they are voters who voted Fine Gael in the last election or would be likely to vote Fine Gael were there a general election tomorrow. They don't belong to Fine Gael in that way. In this straight fight between seven personalities, Gallagher better represents the man on the street: the ordinary, the worker, the grafter, and the slightly imperfect. Gay Mitchell is too perfect; Michael D is too smart; and Martin McGuinness is too, well, foreign (in a non-nationalist way, he just seems to be from somewhere else...up there, I suppose you'd call it; one suspects he will poll much better the further north you go, not just because they can relate better to him in terms of the Peace Process, but because they can better relate to him culturally - he seems more normal up there).

In the words of Christy Moore, Sean Gallagher is " ordinary man, nothing special, nothing grand; he's had to work for everything he owns." And that's why he'll win.

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!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Gay Mitchell and the Problem for Fine Gael

It's early days in the campaign, but Gay Mitchell is not polling well. As the field solidified, the FG vote deserted Mitchell. It did so for a number of reasons: a botched negative attack on Martin McGuinness, perceived initially as the main threat, particularly in winning old Fianna Fail votes; the absence of Fianna Fáil; the strength and diversity of the other candidates; and also the sheer number of other candidates, and the unlikelihood of a government candidate attracting significant transfers.

The negative campaign was a disaster. Mitchell's intemperate appearance with Eamon Dunphy and McGuinness, coupled with the Late Late Show (and an appalling attempt to do a Lloyd Bentsen on McGuinness, who is certainly no Dan Quayle!) did not serve him well. Countless studies show that negative campaigns work. One study makes the point that "[b]ecause negative political advertising that identifies the sponsor and the target hurts both candidates, when a candidate uses such advertising, it would be better not to identify the sponsor." Having the sponsor actually execute the campaign, and deliver the messages personally is completely counter productive. The attacks didn't help McGuinness, but they certainly hurt Mitchell.

Another problem for Mitchell has been the absence of Fianna Fáil. Whatever one says about Seán Gallagher's Fianna Fail credentials, there is simply no imperative to "get those b£$%ards out!" as there was back in January. The persistence of high FG polling since the general election dilutes this notion somewhat, but that FG was a significant, feasible alternative to Fianna Fáil in the election in February is simply not an issue in this campaign.

The opposing candidate quality is also very high. Gallagher, presenting an independent, non-negative, blue sky kind of view is very slick and effective. His response to Fianna Fáil associations that "I never hid that, I encourage political participation, I am an independent" is effective also. McGuinness has great recognition, a grandfatherly way about him, and a seriousness that is difficult to match - you get the sense that people would listen to him when he says something (no jokes please!). No-one can truly say they don't like Michael D, and even Dana has a niche that, in her absence, Mitchell could have expected support from. David Norris one feels is damaged now, and Joycean foppishness is beginning to look like a playful gimmick, in the midst of very serious discussions by the other candidates. Mary Davis is gathering a significant woman's vote. All of that conspires against McGuinness, and the absence of a Labour candidate to be eliminated before him means that transfers will be all over the place.

If Mitchell loses, Fine Gael will find themselves under pressure. If they lose to McGuinness or Gallagher, it will be a boost for Sinn Fein who are already flying high, or perhaps the beginning of a resurgence for Fianna Fáil. If they lose to Higgins, Gilmore may become more active within the coalition, agitating for more Labour orientation to policy given their now enhanced mandate. Kenny will come under pressure for his dithering over Cox, and with county council elections the next hurdle, grassroots whispering about the Taoiseach may begin anew.

Fine Gael now need to find their new vision. For good or ill, it was defined by Fianna Fáil in the election in February. They need to be seen to make significant speeches on social policy, foreign policy, and other non-economic subjects. They need to broaden their definition of themselves as more than merely a party of business, an economic hope. They need to become more representative of Irish aspiration, not merely administration. Otherwise, they will fade into the dross and cynicism that has so characterised the Irish political class for a number of decades now, illuminated only too briefly by the Green Party.

It is a tremendous opportunity for Fine Gael to tighten their grip on power in this country for a generation. I doubt they'll take it.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Why Sean Gallagher's Fianna Fáil Past Matters

The relationship between Sean Gallagher and the Fianna Fáil party is becoming more of an issue as he becomes a serious contender. Whether it is manufactured or substantive I'll deal with later.

In January this year Gallagher resigned from the National Executive in a letter later published on In the same month, he helped launch at least two election campaigns of Fianna Fáil candidate, including front bencher Dara Calleary. He claimed for some time that he left in 2009, but whether he was officially a member or not (whatever that means), he was clearly continuing to support the party until just before the General Election this year. In fact he officially resigned as per the letter from the National Executive in January 2011. In that letter, he makes no reference to his membership of the party (as distinct from the national executive). He does however express his "continued support" to Sean Dorgan and his colleagues. He has openly told of working on Seamus Kirk's re-election campaign, and in Rory O'Hanlon's office, though he is not clear on when those roles ended, and the 1990's in particular seems light on detail. In 2006 he gave a gift of an iPod to then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. As of today, Gallagher's representatives were denying he had anything to do with Fianna Fáil after 2009.

At best, Gallagher is being evasive on the question of the depth and recency of his relationship with Fianna Fáil, and, if he did indeed resign his membership of the party, why he did so. In one interview with Pat Kenny, he stated “I can’t be any more specific than I’m being. I’m standing as an independent candidate and I’m putting myself forward in that capacity. I’m not a member of any political party.” He is most likely at this point not affiliated with Fianna Fáil, he will have made sure of that. But the answers he is giving are Jesuitical - a phrase famously used by John Gormley to describe answers secured from their coalition partners Fianna Fáil on the occasion of the IMF bailout.

Membership of a political party in Ireland is at best a nebulous thing. What seems not to be in dispute is that Gallagher joined Fianna Fáil as a young man in the 1908s. It is unlikely that he ever formally resigned from the party; if people become effective non-members, it is through lapsing. And - taking Gallagher at his word - we can accept that he lapsed for significant periods over the past thirty years. It is also reasonable to assume that he has never been associated with any other political party in that time.

As Gallagher's profile rose with the Dragon's Den series, it was clear that it could provide him a platform for election to public office. Clearly also he is a man with personal ambition. Looking at the landscape in late 2009, the tide was turning. In November 2009, a RedC poll put Fine Gael at 36%, and Fianna Fail at 23%. If Gallagher at that time had designs on a Dáil seat, or the Presidency, the Fianna Fail ticket would possibly become more of a hindrance than a support.

However the thought process progressed from there, we can only speculate. But here's why his obfuscation is a problem for voters.

1) He appears to be misleading people about his history with the Fianna Fáil party. He says he left in 2009, while he was clearly providing public, active support in this year's general election.

2) His association with the party, while co-running a business with tight connections to the property industry, smells of that golden circle of Fianna Fail, Banks, and Property Developers. While Gallagher's company was a subcontractor, it was clearly likely to be well served by Gallagher's political connections. This is a point Gallagher has not addressed.

3) Gallagher, in distancing himself from Fianna Fail, appears to have done so exclusively for political gain. This is perhaps the most damaging aspect of his candidacy. His expressed continued support for the party seems in hindsight an attempt to retain whatever support he could from the party, its structure, and its network, while shedding the clearly toxic badge. It was, in effect, a power play. There was no valour in it, no idealism, no vision. It betrays a man who does not have strong principles, and who would be an apologist for Fianna Fáil.

Had he left the party on principle, he would have had a much better chance, and may even have had my vote. But it is not his attempts to downplay his relationship with Fianna Fáil that rankles; it is his attempts to retain that connection in spite of separation.

But to return to the original question of whether it's really an issue - people may see past it. Gallagher is a genial, charismatic speaker and the more people he speaks to the more people he will have voting for him. The media and the internet may make more of this isssue than is "real". Voters may not care, like with Fianna Fáil in 2007. This will play over the next few days, and the next polls will be out in five or six days. That will tell.

Rousseau and Ireland (Part Un)

I've been re-reading my Rousseau. The concept of the General Will is not a difficult one to grasp - in essence, we all willingly give up our freedom to the Sovereign (in a representative demoncracy that being the collective The People, i.e. us) and in turn the Sovereign redistributes that freedom in an equitable and socially conscious way. It facilitates that freedom generally - that is, in line with a General Will, a kind of will that attaches to the sovereign, which should in effect represent, broadly, the will of the people. Of course, it doesn't always work that way.

There are several reasons for this. Rousseau abhorred the concept of representative democracy; yet his ideas on democracy were taken by Robespierre and transposed onto the revolutionary movement in France immediately after Rousseau's death in 1778. Rousseau, to butcher an idiom, a était retourner dans sa tombe. He would not have been impressed. Nevertheless, the French model persisted, spawned the American model, and the post-Colonial English model that ultimately found its way to Dublin.

And now we have a problem. Politics has become deeply unrepresentative. As politics and business merge, the notion of a ship of state - one unit, sailing forth - is abandoned in favour of the administration of state, a kind of elevated functionary above the civil service by dint of some arbitrary mandate that bears no resemblance to any legitimacy that Rousseau may have sought in a government. Everything is about the economy - as it was in the good times (a successful economy will make everything else successful), and especially so in the bad, where the focus is on fixing what's broken in the economy, and trying to soften the impact of cuts. In the meantime, the gap between rich and poor grows ever greater, and the invalidation of the structures of legitimacy accelerates. The General Will is almost ignored; there is a default position. The government does nothing unless it has to do with the economy. But was the General Will ever relevant?