In the end, there was no empty chair. Plenty of empty rhetoric and a bunch of hollow threats and empty promises, but no empty chair. So who were the real winners last night?
At a stretch, bearded Bobby in Leitrim made the best case– if he had been slightly more eloquent and cut short his rant a little, the man who called Kenny out before being thrown out himself would have been the major winner in last night’s debates. As it was, they threw up nothing, apart from another chance for the parties to repeat their messages again.
There is a truism in communication that the listener cannot be told what to think, but they can be told what to think about. People are most influenced by others around them – family members, friends, co-workers, team-mates etc., and it is by discussing the issues of the day with them that we come to our own conclusions.
By focussing on what you are good at – or indeed what the other crowd are bad at – you control what people talk about in the pubs and factories around the country, and that is what ultimately gives you a chance to change their minds.
No election poster or canvasser in the world ever convinced someone to change their vote; we don’t trust them the way we trust our friends and family, and rightly so. They are in it for them, not us.
Seen in the context of this election, Mícheál Martin is hoping to look forward and to conveniently ignore the fact that the banks stole the country on his watch. There will be no more “sorry”, no more excuses, for a good reason – there is simply no chance that they can convince us that what anything they did in government was of any benefit whatsoever. Their legacy is tarnished beyond repair.
Instead, he and the rest of Fianna Fail would have us suspend our better judgement, ignore the past and give them another crack of the whip, as if everything that happened was beyond their control. Frighteningly, about 16% of voters have already bought this line of reasoning.
For Labour, the balancing act is more difficult. Irish people have a pathological aversion to paying tax, and any mention of raising them will cause voters to run a mile. But without taxes there can be no stimulus, and besides, the burden of the ECB/IMF debt cannot be serviced without money coming in to the state’s coffers. It is easier for Labour to concentrate on attacking the opposition than pushing their own agenda.
Meanwhile, Enda Kenny and Fine Gael are in pole position and the election is theirs to throw away- and with the defensive tactics they are employing, they could yet do so.
Kenny’s charisma deficit is a major flaw, but not fatal; what could prove fatal is his mealy-mouthed excuses for not engaging with the other leaders, and his clumsy efforts to avoid the arena in which he is least comfortable.
If he were straight with the electorate, they’d probably forgive him. No-one likes a chicken, but for once the public is well-prepared to accept a leader who doesn’t pretend to have all the answers- having been fooled into believing that Bertie Ahern, Charlie McCreevy and Brian Cowen had somehow become economic geniuses because they could engineer a property boom, it’ll be a long time before they trust anyone again.
Kenny would do well to study the steady hand at the tiller that is displayed by Swedish prime minister Fredrik Reinfeld – since taking over the Moderate party, Reinfeldt has reinvented himself as a statesman, carefully delegating responsibility but always seeming in control.
He, like Kenny, is charismatic in person but it doesn’t transfer well to the medium of TV, and the first step to solving this problem is to acknowledge it and not try to force it – we’re trying to elect a leader here, not a host for the Late Late Show. Instead, Kenny has in turn tried to run away from it, and then tightly control it by broadcasting his own public meeting on the internet. In doing so, he has made himself a laughing stock.
SInn Féin have been a bit schizophrenic, mixing some excellent contributions with some seriously shoddy ones, especially on economic issues. The opposition has managed to create the impression that they can’t do detail, and that is likely to stick unless they either buck up on the homework or shift the focus entirely.
The outcome of this election depends on who manages to dictate not what we think, but what we think about. The revelations this morning that Anglo may need another €15 billion would, in any other country, have buried Fianna Fail forever.
The no-show by Enda Kenny and his subsequent kicking by bearded Bobby would have put paid to Enda’s chance of being Taoiseach, had there been a credible alternative. Eamon Gilmore had the chance to show that he was that alternative on the TV3 debate, but didn’t – or couldn’t – take it.
And that is essentially what we should be thinking about – the lack of a credible alternative to the politicians that have repeatedly failed us. There are still no big ideas, there is still a yawning chasm in the credibility of all the leading politicians, who in effect allowed this to happen.
But it works both ways – we can’t tell our leaders what to think, but on the doorsteps and in the media we should be telling them what to think about, such as burying the bad banks and providing a future for the country that is not overshadowed by debt and death on hospital trolleys.
By communicating our own agenda loud and clear, we can at least get them to talk about it among themselves, and maybe even change their minds as we go along.