A debate about who really cares

Last night’s leaders debate between the three people vying to be the next Taoiseach has earned high praise from some of the UK journalists visiting our shores to find out how Ireland conducts its politics. For all that Irish people might think that our politicians are sub-standard, at least some of those observing from abroad were vocal in their disagreement:

It’s important to acknowledge the basic truth of this. Irish politics is, indeed, much more detail focused, more civil, and more courteous than politics in most of the rest of the English-speaking world. You only have to watch Prime Ministers Questions in the House of Commons and Leaders Questions in the Dáil to get a sense of how vastly different the tone is. As a rule, roaring matches in Ireland are confined to late night television, and rarely break out at the cutting edge of political combat. To someone unused to such civility, it must come as a refreshing change.

Different, of course, does not mean better. While Irish politics has much to recommend it in terms of the way politicians speak to each other, there’s still a lot left to be desired about how Irish politicians communicate to the public. And because only one of the three leaders is a natural at a different kind of communication, it was she who emerged as probably the happiest of the three leaders after the debate.

Much is being made this morning, rightly, about the Sinn Fein leaders’ bad moments. She seemed evasive on a question about the Special Criminal Court. She was confronted head-on with the murder of Paul Quinn, and the way prominent people in her party tried to justify his savage death with false claims that the young man was involved in criminality. Her story on that appeared to have changed overnight, and the follow up interview with Breege Quinn this morning should really make anyone voting Sinn Fein stop, and have a good long think.

But those were pre-existing weaknesses. It’s possible that there are voters in Ireland who do not know that Sinn Fein is the political wing of a terrorist organisation that murdered, maimed, and terrorised people from all communities, north and south, for three decades, and that they did so while Mary Lou was an adult. It’s possible that voters don’t remember the murder of Garda Jerry McCabe, or the robbing of the Northern Bank, or the slaughter of innocent people at the Cenotaph in Enniskillen. If those voters exist and were watching a television programme for the first time in their lives last night, then they may have learned something disturbing about the Sinn Fein leader.

But lots of people know all that and are voting for Sinn Fein anyway. It’s never useful to make moral judgements about the electorate, and the truth is that the overwhelming majority of people who know all these things and are voting for Sinn Fein anyway are very decent people who would never consciously seek to hurt anybody. They’ve simply come to the conclusion that it’s not relevant, and that attacking Sinn Fein for things that happened twenty years ago is about as important as attacking Fine Gael for the worst crime in the history of the state, the Ballyseedy massacre.

The most important skill in politics is the ability to connect with voters at an emotional level, rather than an intellectual level. Voters cast wholly irrational, illogical votes all the time. Consider the fact that there will be tens of thousands of people on Saturday who will march down to the polling stations and cast a vote for a party because their family always voted that way. It makes absolutely no sense, but they’ll do it anyway, and it’s considered perfectly normal. The emotional pull in the polling booth outweighs the pull of sense and logic, almost every time.

And so who, we should ask, made an emotional case to the electorate last night?

The Irish media, by and large, hates and fears Sinn Fein. One might argue that they are right to – they are not alone in that view. Their view of Sinn Fein is, in all honesty, not far from my own. But there’s no doubt, at all, that it colours their analysis. As I write this, this headline adorns the Irish Times:

There is no evidence, at all, that Sinn Fein’s momentum has been halted. No poll shows it. No sudden reports exist of massive shifts on the doorsteps. Sinn Fein are not backpedalling. All that has happened is that journalists and politicians who were never voting Sinn Fein to begin with have convinced themselves, by talking to each other, that Sinn Fein had a bad night. But that’s not at all obvious, and it’s probably wrong.

When McDonald said during the debate that Fianna Fail was the party of the property developers and Fine Gael was the party of the landlords, it didn’t much matter whether it was true or false. To many people, it feels true, and that always matters more. It was one of a number of lines she deployed in the debate that were much closer in style to Boris Johnson and Donald Trump than to Varadkar and Martin, and the President and Prime Minister are both masters at connecting with their audience at a gut, emotional level.

She talked several times about the value of electing a Government that actually cares about people. That might have been a throwaway line, but if anything is fuelling the surge for Sinn Fein, and the discontent with the two bigger parties, it’s a feeling that they are out of touch with the people’s priorities. When she said “I will never forget who I represent”, the charge was clear – these other two men have done exactly that.

By contrast, there wasn’t much at all by way of emotional appeal from either the Taoiseach or Mr. Martin. Their message was pitched at people like me, who plan to vote for neither of them, but who instinctively fear Sinn Fein. “Forget your plans to vote Independent”, they may as well have said, “you need to stop a Sinn Fein Government”. But, why?

What’s the emotional case for electing Fianna Fail, or Fine Gael, for people who won’t do it because their grandfather would roll in his grave if they voted some other way? Where’s the sense of purpose, the vision for the country that speaks to us on some level beyond both men’s fluency in numbers and political procedure? In your head, they might even make some sense. But at a gut level, you’ve heard it all before, and you know what you’re going to get.

None of this is to say that Mary Lou won the debate if you were judging it on style, or fluency, or command of the issues. That assessment would probably give the victory to the Taoiseach. But in a change election, with an angry electorate, in a country that, for all its public confidence is not really sure where it’s going or what it should be, McDonald was the only candidate to connect with people at a gut level. She connected with me, who would never vote Sinn Fein in a million years.

If she managed that, she managed much more than that as well.

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