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The dirty side of election politics has already reared its ugly head

How much will negative campaigning feature in this general election and who will be the winners and losers, asks Paul Allen.

Paul Allen

ATTACK IS OFTEN seen as the best form of defence. So, with Fianna Fáil still feeling the pain of the merciless mauling it took during the last election, it has apparently decided to go on the offensive. However, it is unlikely its political opponents are quaking in their boots.

Indeed, many will have scoffed along with the journalists that were introduced to the party’s new poster campaign featuring a larger-than-life Enda Kenny. As the Fianna Fail leader stood in front of the poster, dwarfed by the massive picture of the leader of Fine Gael, the media quizzed him as to why he was introducing them to a billboard featuring the Enda Kenny and Fine Gael’s logo rather than Fianna Fáil’s election manifesto.

Martin was left trying to defend his poor decision while half-heartedly denying that he was engaging in negative politics. So, once again Fianna Fáil showed why its poor decision making of late has led the party to become better know as Fianna “fail”.

13/1/2016 Fianna Fail. Pictured Leader Micheal Mar Source: Sam Boal

Tradition

While America has a long tradition of negative and highly personal political attacks, Ireland has tended to leave the nasty stuff for presidential elections rather than going toe-to-toe in general elections.

This is most likely because negative campaigns can be a little like playing Russian Roulette — you are playing with a loaded weapon but nobody is quite sure who is going to be the one who ends up in the (political) morgue.

Not only can voters turn against those dishing out political attacks, but the nature of Irish politics means that messages generally need to be put across in a tone and manner that does not alienate the voter nor political adversaries due to the rise of the floating voter and the inevitability of coalition.

This is why Micheál Martin was desperately trying to deny his ham-fisted attempt at attack politics (despite evidence to the contrary).

However, it is interesting to note that Martin’s key attack on Enda Kenny centred on the health system and trolley crisis — something he was unable to solve during his time as health minister. When he then ruled out giving a commitment to solving the trolley crisis if his party was elected it was like he was in a one-man Punch and Judy show hitting himself with his own truncheon.

Demonic

While it is more common across the Irish Sea, negative campaigning has also been known to backfire in the UK. In 1997, for example, the Conservative Party unveiled a poster featuring Tony Blair’s face adorned with a set of demon eyes along with the tagline — “New Labour, New Danger”. After the Bishop Of Oxford condemned the ‘demonic’ undertones of the poster on the national news the campaign fell flat and Labour romped to victory.

Irish examples by comparison have been pretty toothless. One that stood out was Fine Gael’s attempt to derail Fianna Fáil in the 2001 election with a very lame (and in effective) pun on the Celtic Tiger — “It is time to eradicate the Celtic Snail”. It quickly belly flopped and took its place among one of the most weak and ill-judged political swipes of all time.

BRITAIN ELECTION An election campaign poster containing an image of Britain's Prime Minister and leader of the Labour Party Tony Blair. Source: Associated Press

There is always a fine balance that needs to be understood when utilising the dark art of negative campaigning. So while Fine Fáil’s poor attempt opened up a can of worms that put it on the back foot, Labour was far shrewder earlier this month when it took a cheeky swipe at a possible alliance between Fianna Fáil and Sinn Fein.

Its ‘advert’ (which of course would never see the light of day once it was leaked to the media) portrayed Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams and the Fianna Fáil leader as a gay couple on their wedding day, in an attempt to highlight a vote for one could well be a vote for the other. While it did raise the anger of the politically correct classes, the advert struck the right balance between having a swipe and making a point, but with a sense of humour.

Fianna Fáil could learn a lesson from this. Voters know the state of the health system is something that stretches well past the current government when it comes to the blame game. So highlighting it will only drive voters away from the mainstream parties, and hence Micheál Martin was shooting himself and his party in the foot.

So, the tally so far in the ‘attack politics league table’ has Fianna Fáil bottom, while Labour is riding high.

Sinn Fein have also joined the party and over the weekend launched its poster campaign attacking Fine Gael’s record in managing the health sector.

At present Fine Gael has decided not to play, which could be a wise move. Maybe Enda and Co have realised it is such a dangerous game they would rather sit on the fence and see how the electorate reacts.

But if they get the slightest sense the attack adverts are swaying voter opinion they will no doubt go into attack mode. And that would make this election one of the most bitter in generations. So sit back and watch, as our political elite get ready to rumble.

Paul Allen is managing director of Paul Allen and Associates PR. Follow his blog.

Read: Shocking and provocative but here’s why THAT Labour ad worked>

Read: Criticism for Labour ad showing Gerry Adams and Micheál Martin as gay couple on wedding day>

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