Tuesday 25 October 2016

Andrew Lynch: Enda's swipe at FF leader may lead to a self-inflicted wound

Enda Kenny says a range of measures will be introduced in the budget to help pave the way for reform
Enda Kenny says a range of measures will be introduced in the budget to help pave the way for reform

Enda Kenny is about to take the gloves off.

With a general election now potentially just six weeks away, the Taoiseach has apparently decided that his best chance of winning is to launch a strong personal attack on Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin.

This may be a fighting strategy, but it is also a dangerously stupid one - because any head-to-head contest is likely to result in Enda coming off second best.

Fine Gael's new tactic, outlined in a briefing document circulated last Friday to all its TDs, does have a certain logic. While the party is doing reasonably well in most opinion polls these days, it still needs a few more percentage points to get over the winning line.

Since the Blueshirts are highly unlikely to attract converts from Sinn Fein or other left-wing parties, the Soldiers of Destiny must be top of their target list.


At the 2011 general election, 'Big' Phil Hogan asked disillusioned Fianna Fail supporters to "lend us your vote" just this once. The strategy worked a treat and Fine Gael romped home to victory.

Now the big question is how many of those Fianna Failers will return to their spiritual home?

With this in mind, Enda Kenny has reportedly concluded that the best way to kill a snake is to cut off its head.

Fine Gael TDs are being ordered to savage Micheal Martin at every opportunity, reminding voters of his previous role in a government that sold Ireland's economic independence down the river.

They have even been asked to recycle a vicious insult once used by British Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson about his Conservative rival Ted Health - "a shiver looking for a spine".

Unfortunately for Enda, there are all sorts of problems with this aggressive approach. For a start, while Martin's political record is by no means spotless, most people still see him as a fundamentally nice guy. If Kenny chooses to tackle his main opponent with all studs showing, he will end looking like a hatchet man by comparison.

For an example of how negative campaigning can backfire, look no further than Britain. Over the last 10 years, David Cameron's opponents have tried to smear him as a drug user, an out-of-touch toff and even a man who once, as a college prank, had sexual relations with a deceased pig's head.

None of this has done them any good at all - for the simple reason that Middle England feels more comfortable with Cameron than it did with any Labour leader since Tony Blair.

Fine Gael should also remember that general elections are supposed to be about the future, not the past. Instead of a history lesson about Fianna Fail's disastrous record, voters really want to hear positive suggestions for how Ireland can be improved between now and 2020.

True, Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen did a fine job between them of killing off the Celtic Tiger - but many people have a sneaking suspicion that Enda Kenny would have done no better if he had been in power during the same period.

Another objection to the 'Kill Martin' strategy is that Fine Gael are hardly in a position to start burning bridges. In fact, many polls still suggest that only the two Civil War parties will have enough TDs to form a stable coalition.

It would be more than a little embarrassing for Kenny to call Martin a waste of space right up to election day and then go down on bended knee to him immediately afterwards.


Fine Gael's anti-Martin approach also begs a question. If the Fianna Fail leader is so useless, why will the Taoiseach not meet him face-to-face on national television? Kenny famously bottled out of a one-to-one debate during the last election campaign - and there is every reason to suspect that he will do the same this time around.

The biggest reason for Fine Gael to call off their attack dogs, however, is staring them in the face. Just as Michael Noonan predicted three years ago, Ireland's economy has taken off like a rocket.

The Government can win a second term by talking about our 6.2pc growth rate, healthy tax revenues and falling unemployment - not by trying to claim that Fianna Fail's "Cork Choirboy" is some kind of ogre.

This election is Enda Kenny's to lose. Don't underestimate his ability to do a very good job of doing just that.

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