23rd September 2021

Individualism and ‘inevitability’ are limiting the coalition’s chance of success

The past 18 months have left our coalition government battle scarred. They’ve grappled with quick political wins and tough choices, where often the latter has contradicted or even undone the former.

Meanwhile, at nearly every corner, the opposition, most notably Sinn Féin, has been able to make political hay out of the smallest misstep.

Most people will recognise that governments around the world have been through the mill over the last year and half—no political career could have prepared even the most astute politician for Covid’s tough calls.

So, with public understanding, even sympathy, at levels it is unlikely to reach again, how has the coalition squandered so much goodwill and respect?

The state of affairs

The rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine has been an overwhelming success despite early jitters. Ireland never experienced the horrific hospital scenes witnessed in Italy or New York, and the economy, although propped up with major state investment, has come out the other side ready to grow.

But would you know any of that listening to those who led it all? The Government’s inability to own these successes and stitch them into the narrative has left a vacuum for the opposition to fill with awkward scandal.

What should have been a weeklong political controversy following the Zappone affair is still a Government punching bag, and Sinn Féin have soared ahead in recent polls.

Indeed, it is now looking increasingly likely that Mary Lou McDonald will lead a Sinn Féin government after the next general election.  Her frontbench is operating more and more like a cabinet in waiting.

There is even a sense that some within the coalition have accepted their fate and are already moving to damage control, preparing themselves to step back into opposition and let Sinn Féin ‘have a go at it’.

Turning the tide

Me vs we

Since the ‘stepping up in a time of crisis to serve the people of Ireland’ moment has arguably been and gone, the lack of unity of purpose and collective ownership among the three-party government of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, and the Green Party has become obvious.

In principle, our government departments should work together, and ministers should be in tune with their colleagues. But reflection on some ministerial interviews over the past month shows the opposite.

There is often a sense of ‘mé féin’ in cabinet communications. Phrases like ‘I am happy to launch’, ‘I have delivered’, and ‘my research’ roll off the tongue.  This is not the language of unity.

Even the use of ‘we’ and ‘our’, a simple yet tactical change of phrasing, presents a coalition as ‘in it together’, whose constituent parties are less open to being pitted against each other by political opponents and media.

Polls show Sinn Féin in the lead—and it may stay that way if the coalition can't pull together. Photo credit: Niall Carson.

Owning success

Observers will have to look hard across Europe before they find a government that allows media to create and own their narrative as easily as Ireland’s. Time after time, the Irish Government has allowed its wins to sit on the back pages and its crises take the front-page headlines.

While former US President Donald Trump took it too far, the cabinet could take a page or two out of his communications handbook. His bullish style of putting his work front and centre before his base arguably enabled him to grow and maintain his popularity.

Sinn Féin do this all the time. Day after day, they issue criticism of the coalition on their terms and in a tone that appeals to their base. The Government must now begin to take this energetic, consistent approach to their communications.

Crucial to communicating this success is relatability. Martin, Varadkar and Ryan must ask themselves what’s fundamentally important to their respective voters and how they can clearly communicate that ‘they’ are making progress on it. How can they truly inspire people to get out and vote when it matters?

Hiding in plain sight

Despite the issues with current affairs, individualism, and a loss of control of the narrative, there is still hope for Martin and his coalition. This Government is sitting on some big wins.

Education reform on the cards

Somehow, and despite what now seem like minor hiccups along the way, newbie-TD-made-education minister Norma Foley has navigated her brief’s challenges with steely determination.

While challenging, our schools have maintained learning, adapted well to new teaching practices, and got two groups of Leaving Cert students through the Senior Cycle. Foley has locked horns with teaching unions and come out the other side.

The fruits of her labour are within reach: reforms of the Senior Cycle and, more broadly, how we ‘do’ education in Ireland are ready to be green lit. If she can show that this has always been the plan for this collective government, it’ll be a pandemic well spent—and it may even help reclaim some of the Sinn Féin-leaning youth vote.

Agriculture is leading the way

Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue has tipped along unscathed during his first year in the role. While yet unbruised by tractor protests or Brexit ramifications, he has overseen a sector experiencing some of the highest commodity prices in decades.

Over the next two years, the coalition will lead the rollout of Ireland’s new CAP plan. While many of the details have yet to be ironed out, the nuts and bolts are simple: Irish agriculture is leading the way in Ireland’s carbon reduction efforts, and it is time for other sectors to follow suit.

McConalogue must sell this good news tastefully, acknowledging the involvement of wider government and stakeholders, and championing the men and women working the land, connecting with both rural and environmentalist voters in the process.

Despite the tribulations of remote learning, Norma Foley is in a strong position to deliver education reform for the coalition.

The new way of working

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has repeatedly given his backing for a new and improved world of hybrid working for Irish businesses.  Observing Government communication on the matter in recent months, however, you’d be forgiven for thinking he’s the only one who sees the opportunity. By going it alone, he risks failing to secure change.

The post-pandemic evolution of the Irish workplace is likely to continue for years. Arguably, there has never been a greater opportunity to restore Ireland’s rural economies, reduce carbon emissions and transport dependency, and improve the overall health and wellbeing of the working population. It’s a political win-win that if communicated correctly could do wonders for this Government and for everyone.

Varadkar and team must refrain from launching yet another report or remote working policy and pause to outline what the coalition’s actual vision is for a changed world of work in Ireland, bring people (employers and employees) with them on this journey, and clearly communicate the next steps.

Getting on with it

When the Dáil returned last Wednesday, the coalition carried the hangover of its Covid squabbles like children rowing in a school yard. Communications missteps and individual antics continue to get in the way. Meanwhile, opposition took the spotlight and notched up the polls once again.

Martin, Varadkar, and Ryan still have time to turn the ship around and avoid the ‘inevitable’ at the next election.  But to do this, they must address serious issues across policy and communications.

They must now roll up their sleeves to shake off the sense of inevitability of a Sinn Féin government. They need to take control of the news agenda, replace ‘me’ with ‘we’, and bullishly communicate their successes and vision for the future.

A re-energised effort with clear communication on the collective successes of meaningful importance will be a step uphill on an increasingly slippery slope.

About the author

Barry supports 360’s portfolio of public affairs and corporate clients. With a background in farming, he has a particular interest in the agrifood sector and environmental policy. Before joining 360, Barry was Campaigns & Communications Officer and later President of UCD Students’ Union. He is also an alum of the Washington Ireland Program, interning with the New York State Comptroller during his time in the US.

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