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Lise Hand: Meticulous election planning meaningless as parties skid on first banana skins

Election candidates can find themselves at the mercy of the news cycle but they shouldn’t be blindsided by issues known to Joe Duffy and their canvassers, writes Lise Hand in her first column for TheJournal.ie.

BRITISH PRIME MINISTER Harold MacMillan was no dummy. When he was voted into 10 Downing Street he was asked what would determine the path of his government.

“Events, dear boy, events,” was his world-weary response.

It was a reply which was both precise and prescient – the cataclysmic 1956 Suez debacle had propelled him into power, and it would be the extraordinary sex-and-spies Profumo scandal which would hasten his resignation in 1963.

Three decades later in November 1994, the disconsolate shade of MacMillan drifted through Leinster House as a freshly resigned Albert Reynolds bemusedly mulled his sudden political demise.

Having successfully negotiated a historic breakthrough in the peace process with the signing of the Downing Street Declaration in 1993, within a year he stepped down as Taoiseach after a political crisis suddenly ignited over the extradition of a paedophile priest.

“It’s amazing,” he ruefully reflected, “You cross the big hurdles, and when you get to the small ones, you get tripped up.”

And so it goes that the best-laid election plans of political strategists, spin-doctors, policy wonks, backroom teams, marketing gurus, social media experts, veteran campaigners and control-freak candidates can go awry with gusto, sent skidding upon the banana-skin of unforeseen events.

The outgoing government wasn’t catapulted into this election; it wasn’t like November 2017 when then-justice minister Frances Fitzgerald became entangled in a ferocious hullabaloo over the ongoing Garda whistleblower controversy which damn near collapsed the confidence-and-supply agreement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil and gave an aghast nation a Christmas election.

This time, with the Dáil in recess and with a semblance of order returned to Westminster after three years of mayhem, the Taoiseach and his team were able to do some thinking and planning over the festive season.

Doubtless Fine Gael – and every other party sniffing the political wind – drew up meticulous grids and timetables for launching policies and manifestos crafted to appeal to various targeted sections of the electorate.

It was a no-brainer that housing and health would hog headlines and occupy the minds of the public.

Surely a post-new year furore over Fine Gael’s decision to hold a commemoration of the Royal Irish Constabulary and Dublin Metropolitan Police was a mere blip, a commotion caused by cantankerous folks stuck at home in January with no drink, no money and not enough distracting news?

But almost as soon as the campaign began last Tuesday – to drag another fruit into the equation – it all promptly went the shape of a pear for more than one party.

On the first full day of campaigning, Leo Varadkar, Paschal Donohoe, Heather Humphreys and Helen McEntee headed to the gleaming Monaghan headquarters of forklift manufacturers Combilift – “it’s the size of three Croke Parks”, one proud staff member informed the assembled media.

The plan was to hammer home in a border location the centrality of Fine Gael in bringing home the Brexit bacon and also in getting Stormont back in business.

But even as the ministers smilingly posed on machinery for the cameras, the awful plight of a homeless man who suffered severe injuries when he was accidentally scooped up in a clean-up operation along Dublin’s canal dominated the press conference.

Moreover, the Taoiseach’s tin-eared replies to questions on the incident skewed the spotlight from its planned course.

And this appalling event was swiftly followed by news of the brutal slaying of a 17-year-old boy in Drogheda in an act of savagery by members of a drugs gang.

Suddenly violent crime and the rampant use of cocaine in Ireland moved unexpectedly centre-stage as an election issue.

The Taoiseach and the justice minister hot-footed it to Drogheda to pledge resources to the Gardaí while the opposition clamoured for task forces and changes to the judicial and court system.

But the first week of the campaign held other twists as the issue of the pension gap roared into life with parties scrambling to address the hubbub of voters’ concerns about being denied access to the State pension for a year or more after they retire at 65.

Sinn Féin actually had a head start on the issue and it was to be their leader’s talking-point last Thursday. But instead, Mary Lou McDonald was engulfed by events – namely the unsavoury comments aired on a podcast by one of her party’s local councillors, Paddy Holohan.

The ex-MMA fighter effectively put Sinn Féin’s campaign on the ropes for two days until he was eventually suspended from the party pending an investigation.

To some extent during a campaign, election candidates find themselves at the mercy of the news cycle, and how they or their parties react to these events can change the course of an election, particularly a tight contest.

But other ‘events’ such as the pension gap shouldn’t blindside the political establishment.

It was coming up on the doors, on RTÉ’s Joe Duffy, in myriad conversations among workers gazing down the barrel of retirement for some time now.

But maybe the voiced concerns were too soft to penetrate the outer layer of the Government Buildings bubble.

The startling Behaviour & Attitude poll unleashed in the Sunday Times at the weekend which put Fianna Fáil into a 12-point lead over Fine Gael did blindside everyone, but it was followed by the first campaign poll published by the Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI last night which was less dramatic but nonetheless showed Fine Gael dropping behind Fianna Fáil for the first time in three years and a surge in support for Sinn Féin and a rising Green tide.

Is this slump in support for the main government party the result of recent events, or could it be the pooling of a nine-year slow drip of discontent and disillusionment with the government over long-term issues such as hospitals and homelessness and housing?

There’s a whiff of volatility in the air and there are almost three weeks to go yet. Plenty of time for events, dear electorate, events.

Lise Hand will be writing regularly for TheJournal.ie over the course of the General Election. 

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