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Leo says it wasn't 'a bad day at the office after all', but swing-gate and co-living did real damage to FG

Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty said there was not one issue that did the damage.

Image: Leah Farrell

FINE GAEL SET a target for itself to be the largest party in the local councils after the election. 

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar set an initial target to win an extra 50 seats in the local elections – a tad optimistic. 

However, once candidates and campaigners hit the doorsteps it was clear that two issues were coming up time and time again – co-living and swing-gate.

With the writing on the wall, the target was revised downwards to between 20 and 30 seats. The final results show that Fine Gael won 255 seats around the country – up 20 seats, and just over 25% of the vote.

Earlier in the week, Varadkar admitted the party did “less than what we hoped for quite frankly” but as the dust settles, he appears more optimistic.

But what went wrong? That is the question that left Fine Gaelers scratching their heads earlier this week.

Most knew of course, and it became pretty clear on Monday morning what one of the issues was, when Dun Laoghaire TD Maria Bailey took to the airwaves to defend her insurance claim case after falling off a swing in a hotel a number of years ago. 

It was all the talk at the RDS count centre, among counters, journalists, and her own party colleagues.  The Taoiseach said the case had done “reputational damage” to the party, while Health Minister Simon Harris said the interview was “unfortunate”.

As the results came in for his party, Harris acknowledged that the swing-gate scandal was coming up on the doorsteps ahead of voting day, and it had done some damage. 

A number of TDs have said the Bailey case in particular had an impact in their view, with one TD even alleging that it could have lost about 100 votes or more per candidate, which they said could have affected candidates on the edge of getting elected. 

If TDs thought the case had damaged the party before the election, they certainly believed Bailey’s radio interview with RTÉ’s Sean O’Rourke this week had an impact. 

Speaking to reporters at the RDS after Bailey’s appearance on the airwaves, Health Minister Simon Harris said it would have been appropriate for Bailey to meet with the Taoiseach before taking to the airwaves:

I think that is regrettable that it didn’t happen in advance of the interview…

“My understanding is that it is a decision she made of her own volition, as is her right. I think it would have been better if she had the meeting with the Taoiseach first.

“I think it was an unfortunate interview. I think when you withdraw a claim I think it is in and of itself an acknowledgement of the fact that perhaps that claim shouldn’t have proceeded, yet the interview seems to be very much in the space of blaming lots of other people,” he said.

Disbelief

Some Fine Gael members said they were in disbelief as to why Bailey thought it would be a good move to go on the radio programme. One Fine Gael source even said: “It’s possibly the worst political interview I’ve ever heard.”

They added that it was a complete “solo run” by the TD, describing it as a “car crash” interview. Another Fine Gael TD said the interview showed a serious lack of judgement on the part of Bailey.

They said they have a lot of empathy for her, “probably more than anyone else in the party”, but that going on the radio programme was a “rookie mistake” that an experienced politician wouldn’t make.

“My heart goes out to her… I feel very upset about it… I don’t think she did it intentionally, but she has caused huge damage to the party,” they added.

It was later announced that an internal party review is due to be carried out on ‘swing-gate’ – so this controversy is set to continue to be a headache for Fine Gael. 

Co-living

But when you drill down into the party’s performance, it wasn’t just swing-gate that could have affected things. There was another reason – Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy’s comments on co-living and how exciting it should be for young people.

There was a running commentary up to vote day on the co-living proposals, which later materialised in the count centre in Dublin, when a protest broke out around Murphy

One FG TD said while the timing of swing-gate was “horrific”, so were Murphy’s comments, and that blame for the party’s performance is being put on Bailey – when  Murphy and his co-living comments were just as damaging in the last week, “if not more so”.

Another TD said the co-living comments made people question putting a number one next to a Fine Gael candidate, with some of them ‘most likely switching to the Green vote’ in the last week.

Both of the above issues no doubt stuck in the minds of voters when they went to the ballot box. And it wasn’t one issue that did the damage, Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty said after the voting concluded.

I don’t think it is fair to say you can pick any one particular issue… I don’t think any one issue has damaged any one political party… we would be very naive to think that any one issue had stopped us from being the largest party [in local government].

Varadkar said he is particularly concerned about the party’s Dublin performance, calling it disappointing – particularly as it was polling well in the area.

Fine Gael’s campaign seemed very much about a battle for rural Ireland seats, but the party took the eye off the ball when it came to Dublin. As the exit poll was announced, it became apparent the party was going to lose votes to the Green Party. 

Varadkar said this was something Fine Gael was going to have to “analyse” in the coming weeks.

Doherty described results day in the locals last time around as the “awful day we had four years ago”.

This week, Varadkar’s attitude to the 2019 results appears to be ‘we’ll take it’, with him tweeting afterwards: “Not a bad day at the office after all.”

The big question now is how will the local results translate into a general election. That will be Varadkar’s main focus in the weeks ahead. 

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