Una Mullally’s savage, over the top, and downright nasty attack on Fine Gael by-election candidate James Geoghegan in this week’s Irish Times should be a wakeup call for the party, but it will not be. For most of the last decade, Fine Gael has sought to win the respect, admiration, and votes, of people like Ms. Mullally. The party’s present leader described his party as a movement of the “progressive centre” – liberal on social issues, but sensible and centrist on matters of the economy and finance. The idea has been to turn Fine Gael into a political version of google, or facebook: job creators with a social conscience, people who you can trust with your money, but also comfortable enough to know what a non-binary person is and provide funding for their needs. It has not worked.
In pursuit of this strategy, Fine Gael has very consciously abandoned a chunk of people who used to vote for it. In the opinion polls, this appears to have worked. But opinion polls are one thing: In the last two general elections, the party has haemorrhaged votes, and struggled to break 20% of first preferences. Meanwhile, independents like Michael Collins, Mattie McGrath, and the Healy Rae brothers hoover up multiple quotas between them with a distinctly politically incorrect message, while Fine Gael (and its little brother, Fianna Fáil) scrape for votes in liberal constituencies in Dublin, begrudgingly elected, but never loved.
This is not to say that liberalism, or progressivism, are automatic vote losers. There are many voters in Ireland, most of them in the centre, who instinctively consider themselves liberal, and progressive. Those voters have no truck with, for example, explicitly anti-immigraton politics, or scepticism of vaccines, or opposition to gay marriage. Most of them voted to legalise abortion. It would be foolish to suggest that Fine Gael would increase its support overnight by becoming a copycat version of Viktor Orban’s Fidesz, or similar parties.
But there is a difference between being a liberal party, like for example Britain’s Tory party, which takes almost identical stances on social issues to Fine Gael, and being what Fine Gael has become: The patron of progressive activists who hate it.
In Government, Fine Gael has shovelled money and resources to those who hate it and will never vote for it. It can never go left enough, on any issue, to win the love of full time liberal campaigners. It will never be the first choice of the National Women’s Council of Ireland on feminist matters. It will never be the first choice of Pavee Point on traveller issues. It will never win the loyalty of the immigrant council of Ireland on refugee accommodation. It will never be endorsed by those given millions a year to campaign on homelessness, or the environment, or alcoholism, or drugs, or any one of the thousand other issues on which the party has directed taxpayer money be given to activists. It will never be pro-palestinian enough for those who care about Palestine. All it has done, for most of a decade, is politically strengthen those dedicated to the election of an explicitly left Government, and the defeat of Fine Gael.
In this by-election, Fine Gael has found itself under attack from repeal campaigners, marriage equality campaigners, journalists, NGOs, and almost every other group it has tried to befriend for the last decade. Those defending its candidate from the most unfair attacks have not been Fine Gael’s friends, but the people to whom it generally refuses to give the time of day. Its candidate, meanwhile, has responded to every attack by pledging even more loyalty to the progressive agenda. This has not, and will not, save him. If he is elected, it will be because of the hard work of Fine Gael activists, many of whom suffer Fine Gael policy quietly, and by holding their noses.
This is a political party which desperately wants to be loved by people who do not vote for it, never have voted for it, and never will vote for it. When Mr. Varadkar became the party leader, he seemed to instinctively grasp who did vote for it and declared that he would lead a party for people who get up in the morning. He was then roundly savaged by those who would never vote for Fine Gael anyway, and the early risers were forgotten.
Progressive activists, of course, will always take what they can get. If making a policy gain means appearing in a photo with Mr. Varadkar, or liking one of Simon Harris’s inane tweets, then they will do it gladly. They are happy to love-bomb the party when it suits them – which is never at election time. At election time, Fine Gael’s fattened puppy turns into a rabid dog, determined to destroy the owner which fed them. If it wasn’t so sad, it would be quietly satisfying.
Fine Gael does have a natural voter base. They are people who want to live in a normal, tolerant, business friendly, capitalist country, and who are socially tolerant, and open to differences of opinion. No natural Fine Gael voter cares what Una Mullally thinks, or pays much heed to the National Women’s Council, or gender quotas, or pride month. The problem for Fine Gael is that it doesn’t really want those people to vote for it. It wants Una Mullally to vote for it. And she is never, ever, ever going to do that.