Soldiers of destiny baffled by bad ratings

At the parliamentary party conference in Westport, the Fianna Fáil leadership was unable to explain the government's low ratings, and there was nervousness among backbenchers about the damage being done by Mary Harney to the party's re-election chances. Eoin Ó Murchú reports

'We will go before the people on the basis of our record in delivering the strongest economy in Europe."

That was the blunt challenge thrown down by Taoiseach Bertie Ahern when he spoke to the press at the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party conference in Westport, Co Mayo, earlier this week.

And the Taoiseach warned that the economic success he boasts about did not just happen, but is the result of prudent government management of the economy. "The people must understand," he said, "that we cannot take our future for granted."

He warned against the opposition, claiming that slogans without substance cannot be compared to a proven track record in government and that uncosted plans do not make a budget.

He challenged the opposition to outline its own policy alternatives and promised the government would get on with its own work and go forward to outline a new national-development plan this autumn, building on what has already been done and delivering further economic development.

His brave words were dutifully echoed by senior party spokespeople, Brian Cowen, Mícheál Martin and Mary Hanafin, who all urged that the party concentrate on its economic achievements. Brian Cowen was confident support would return to the party when the campaign got underway next year and people were faced with real choices.

However, there was no real explanation forthcoming as to why the party is doing so poorly in the opinion polls, given the strength of the economy, and Brian Cowen actually delivered himself of the memorable line: "The people aren't focusing on the issues." He seemed to miss the point that the issues are decided by what concerns the voters and not by what pleases the government.

Nevertheless, Cowen eventually conceded that there was frustration among voters that some problems remained and weren't immediately solved, but argued that it took time to solve problems and the ones remaining had to be set against the achievements made. This should give voters confidence that the government could and would deliver the solutions they wanted, he argued.

The impact of the backbencher revolt earlier in the summer was to be seen in a definite input from the ranks. Rather than the normal practice of ministers outlining their proposals and taking questions on pre-determined policy, key to the agenda in Westport were reports from four backbench committees on themes ranging from energy, transport, communications, enterprise, social welfare, health and finance – to which ministers responded.

Probably because of this, there was no criticism of the party leadership from any of the backbenchers Village spoke to, but there remains considerable nervousness, to say the least, about the party's and the backbenchers' electoral chances.

Publicly, however, the backbenchers preserved the united front, denying any problems at the doorsteps, with Seán Fleming of Laois-Offaly claiming that 85 per cent of the issues raised with him concerned local issues. There were no A&E problems, he claimed, in Portlaoise or Tullamore and A&E was only a problem for his constituents to the extent that they read about it in the media.

The final session of the conference was headed 'Solutions to the Problems of Health' but if Fianna Fáil came up with any solutions they are keeping them quiet. The leadership denies it but there is wide misgiving about Mary Harney's role in health, particularly her insistence on using public money to assist in the development of private hospitals on the grounds of existing public facilities. Dublin Northwest TD Pat Carey has been quite vocal on this, arguing that public money should be used for public needs.

But Brian Lenihan denied there was any problem. Harney has had several successful long meetings with Fianna Fáil backbenchers, who, he claims, are happy with her work. And Brian Cowen insisted that government health policy was a collective effort, with a cabinet health sub-committee, on which he plays a key role.

Privately, several backbenchers queried this and felt that Harney was dragging them down, especially in Dublin.

However, there is a marked contrast between what the government feels it should be celebrating because of the strength of the economy and the opinion-poll reality. Overall, what comes across is that the leadership doesn't understand why the party has such a low standing in the opinion polls. Senior spokesperson after senior spokesperson repeated the refrain that we had never done so well and that we were the envy of Europe. They can't seem to understand any scenario other than one where support will automatically return to them when people "seriously consider the choices" closer to the election.

But he party was on more confident ground when it attacked the opposition. It drew attention to the obvious differences between Fine Gael and Labour on risk equalisation in health, for example (an issue, incidentally, where Fine Gael's Michael Noonan historically took a position closer to Labour's than to that of his party today). Differences on how to manage the services sector were also cited, with Fianna Fáil demanding to know whether a Fine Gael/Labour government would, or would not, back the services directive.

The more delicate issue of how a Fianna Fáil/Labour government would deal with the same matter was not touched on.

Fianna Fáil also demanded the opposition should put its cards on the table regarding its policy proposals so that the public would have an opportunity for an informed debate about the choices available to it at the next election.

Fine Gael and Labour will indeed have their opportunity in the coming weeks to do just that as both parties also have parliamentary party conferences planned – Fine Gael in Sligo and Labour in Cork.

Meanwhile the Greens, too, are on the parliamentary crack, with their own session in Aughrim, Co Wicklow this.

But if Fianna Fáil have worries about the level of their public support, they still take succour from the fact that the Rainbow still doesn't look likely to have the numbers to put the soldiers of destiny out of government.p