“You’ll burst the party!”

by Maria on June 15, 2010

After a disastrous poll last week that showed people in Ireland think little of the Taoiseach and less of opposition leader Enda Kenny, Richard Bruton has made a bid for leadership of Fine Gael. I hope he wins.

Bruton is the brains of the operation and an able and articulate politician. He has singlehandedly carried the almost forgotten social democrat mantle in a party long over-run by Christian Democrats who wouldn’t be out of place in North Rhine Westphalia. He has a social conscience and mastery of policy detail almost unknown in Irish politicians, but he seems able to get his ideas across in a straightforward and compelling way. Bruton offers a fully thought-through alternative economic and political vision to the crony capitalism that has dominated Ireland for almost two decades. And, in an era where cutbacks and ‘tough decisions’ are inevitable, he has shown today a willingness to wield the knife.

Enda Kenny is enormously liked by party members and has done extraordinary work to rebuild the party machine and boost its morale. I’ve been fortunate to meet him myself, through my involvement helping set up a branch of Fine Gael in Brussels a few years ago. I was struck by his seemingly genuine interest and ease with people. It is largely down to him that FG is now the biggest party in local government and made a good showing – though clearly not good enough – in the last election. The party is poised to enter government as the dominant coalition party in the next election. But it’s not enough.

I don’t buy the popular view that blue shirts are ‘too nice’ to rule. But it is true that the broader public just doesn’t see Enda as Taoiseach material. The longer they’ve known him, the less the Irish electorate thinks of him as having the wherewithal to run the country. Which is a shame as, had the cards played out differently, he might have grown into the role thrust unexpectedly upon him as John Bruton did. Several times in the last few years, as successive opinion polls show that people just don’t rate him, Enda has pledged to work harder and better to win confidence. But the message of Irish voters to Enda stays the same: “It’s not me. It’s you.”

The heave was triggered when Enda asked Richard Bruton, deputy leader and the policy brain of the operation, to go to the media endorsing Enda’s leadership after the latest poll. Bruton refused to do so and was today sacked from his party position. This means he can’t table a motion of no-confidence in tomorrow’s parliamentary party meeting, so it’s not clear what will happen next. It’s unlikely that Bruton has enough support to shoot down Enda’s motion of confidence. And Enda is likely to appeal to his hard-earned popularity within the party machine.

Interviewed on RTE television tonight, Bruton dealt with charges that he was playing into the hands of Fianna Fail, that Fine Gael will collapse in a seething mass of venom drawn out by a leadership contest, and that he owes Enda loyalty because Enda supported former Taoiseach John Bruton (Richard’s older brother) in various heaves. To which he responded that this is a bigger issue than personal loyalty to a much-loved party leader and that Fine Gael can handle a contested leadership.

(To the claim that Fine Gael can’t handle a leadership contest and will implode like Fianna Fail does, I offer this extremely partisan analogy of leadership change. FF during and post-Haughey is like North Korea, with dissent and alternatives quashed to the point where any change in the top man means risking the whole thing collapsing. FG is more like a ‘mature’ democracy where what seems like a huge change from a socialist to a rightist government doesn’t fundamentally change most of the people and machinery of power.)

Bruton’s two claims – that FG can manage internal conflict and that national interests outweigh personal loyalty – could be read as expressing only self-interest. As an ardent and longtime supporter of Richard Bruton, I’m the last person who should be offering this opinion. But if Fine Gael wants a leader who can win elections, and not just popularity contests, and who can lay out and implement a vision for a fairer Ireland in the difficult years ahead, the party should vote with its head, not its heart.



P O'Neill 06.15.10 at 2:53 am

I do wonder if we need to look again at the events leading to the Dail confidence/no confidence in debate in Cowen today. The media accounts have it that Enda was so outraged after reading the banking inquiry preliminary reports that he decided there and then last Wed night to table the motion — even though Labour (and perhaps a chunk of FG) thought that it was far too soon and FF should be left to stew for another couple of weeks. The conventional narrative has the Bruton-Kenny row occurring only over the weekend after the bad poll — but had Enda sown the seeds of dissent with an impulsive — and now lost in the leadership distraction — move of a few nights earlier?

On a more technical point, there must be some CTer who can tell us what happens in the following scenario: Respondents are asked to choose between A and B, when some of a strong preference for C. How does the non-availability of C affect their relative ranking of A and B compared to if they could have chosen among all 3?

Because that’s the dynamic in the poll’s bizarre “choice for Taoiseach” question.


Maria 06.15.10 at 3:05 am

Well that (your first) is certainly a far more interesting question than whether Bruton’s push is bad timing as it detracts attention away from the no-confidence motion in the government. There is a very annoying tendency, especially in radio current affairs programmes, to focus exclusively in on the ‘who said what, where and when’ and avoid thinking about something other than the nose on your face.

Any takers on the second question? Is it a form of cycling?


otto 06.15.10 at 8:51 am

This has been another edition of Crooked Timber as the world’s premier Wild Geese blog.

To my mind, FG has been pretty vague / ambiguous on what they would be doing if they were in government to the degree that I have almost no idea what I would be voting for if I voted for them (on any of these issues: public pay, property tax, transport 21, taxes on income including for the low paid, university funding, and NAMA). And of course if you want a reliable social democrat, Labour might be a better bet than any FG leader. As for the “brains of the operation” in FG, I think I’d take Garrett Fitzgerald over any of them.


Mrs Tilton 06.15.10 at 9:00 am

a party long over-run by Christian Democrats who wouldn’t be out of place in North Rhine Westphalia

It’s a fate I wouldn’t wish on my own worst foe, but if one absolutely must be overrun by Christian Democrats, one could do worse than those from NRW. I mean, yes, they’re godawful. But they’d be a bullet dodged, compared with Christian Democrats from Hessen, to say nothing of their Morlock sister party in Bavaria.


LeftAtTheCross 06.15.10 at 9:26 am

“Bruton offers a fully thought-through alternative economic and political vision to the crony capitalism that has dominated Ireland for almost two decades.”

Really?? Leave aside the personalities of Bruton and Kenny and there is no fundamental difference in policies between them, or between FG and the FF/Green government.

It’s time that FG woke up to the fact that the decrease in popularity for the FF/Green government is because of their austerity policy, not because of personalities, and there’s nothing that differentiates FG from FF/Greens in that regard. The swing from FF is occuring in their rural working class base, which is closer to Labour and SF than to FG. The days of civil war divisions between two similar centre-right parties is coming to an end. FG have no automatic entitlement to the lost FF vote.


LeftAtTheCross 06.15.10 at 9:27 am

That should have been “urban working class base”.


alex 06.15.10 at 10:14 am

Frankly, one would have thought that any way in which Ireland could be more like NRW could only help at the moment.


Paddy Matthews 06.15.10 at 11:37 am

He has singlehandedly carried the almost forgotten social democrat mantle

Any evidence for this assertion?


Paddy Matthews 06.15.10 at 11:43 am

Frankly, one would have thought that any way in which Ireland could be more like NRW could only help at the moment.

Parts of NRW seem to be doing a pretty good impression of Ireland at the moment:

Unemployment is 10.2 percent in Bochum, lower than in nearby Essen or Dortmund, but well above the national rate of 8.1 percent. “You wouldn’t believe how many old people, normally dressed, are collecting bottles in front of the train station,” said Johannes Henke, 40, a taxi driver standing under a shopping center overhang to stay out of the rain.

Like municipalities throughout the Ruhr, the city government is in deep fiscal trouble. According to Paul Aschenbrenner, the Bochum city director, the city was $1.8 billion in debt, or $4,700 for each resident. The government has been forced to cut municipal jobs, raise fees at music schools and reduce hours and increase prices at sports facilities.



toby 06.15.10 at 12:02 pm

Enda Kenny is highly respected in Fine Gael, but I think his disastrous showings on television have done for the man.

Richard Bruton is highly intelligent, but rather cold and remote, like his brother. However, he is articulate and a good communicator. Kenny on the other hand is warm and gregarious, but totally untelegenic, and an abysmal public communicator. Kenny is probably more street -smart than Bruton – in fact he has outmanouevred him already, rendering it moot who will win.

Personally, I think Bruton would be the better man to lead FG into a general election, but the two protagonists seem so equally matched in terms of support that it may be a Pyrrhic victory for either one.


Maria 06.15.10 at 12:53 pm

Paddy, well Bruton’s been the most, and I think only, prominent person on the social democratic wing of the party since Alan Dukes. To call it a wing when it’s a wing of one is perhaps a bit much. But why, do you see him as something else?

I’ve always thought of Richard Bruton as continuing to carry the mantle of Declan Costello’s Just Society in a way that very few who joined in that generational upswing did. I have that impression and belief from listening to him over the years and seeing him in action at an ard fheis a few years ago. In fact, I’ve thought it so long I’ve not really questioned this assumption in some time. So, no hard evidence from me for this claim, and I’d be interested to hear views to the contrary.

Toby, I think you have it in one. Perfect summary – Bruton does come across as cold in a way that cerebral people often do.


Maria 06.15.10 at 1:03 pm

Funnily enough,on the subject of Brutons, loyalty and heaves; in early 1994 I went along with my mother to a meeting of Fine Gael South Tipp that the TD at the time, Theresa Ahearn had organised to help oust Bruton as leader. We had just lost my mother’s sister Bairbre to cancer and I was keeping Mum company on a wintry night when she would much rather have stayed at home to mourn.

But my mother is a trooper and felt a particular loyalty. John had continued to the end a correspondence with Bairbre on the vexed subject of repealing laws that banned Sinn Fein from directly appearing on television or radio. As leader of the opposition during a difficult period, he made time to argue thoughtfully and respectfully why this concession would need to be made.

I was a college student at the time and the youngest at the meeting. I got fed up of the main line of argument against Bruton; that he had no media presence and that young people didn’t like him. Towards the end of the meeting I made a rather passionate impromptu speech whose gist was that ‘young people’ could read the media better than anyone there and were more interested in substance than style. It helped sway that particular meeting from no-confidence back towards indecision.

I remember being very irritated afterwards when everyone assumed my mother had put me up to it – the pride of youth! In any case, Bruton survived that putsch and was in government by the end of the year.


Paddy Matthews 06.15.10 at 1:09 pm

Maria, are there *any* social democrats left in the upper reaches of Fine Gael at this stage? Richard Bruton doesn’t strike me as being anything other than a mainstream centre-right Christian democrat, competent but uninspired. According to Elaine Byrne in today’s Irish Times, who seems to be well-connected within FG:

This is not like other leadership contests. The faint ideological divisions between the Christian democratic and social democratic wings of Fine Gael are absent. Enda Kenny and Richard Bruton both uphold the same John Brutonite tradition.

If you can show me evidence as to why that assumption is incorrect, I’d be glad to be corrected.

As to the notion that FG doesn’t handle leadership putsches well, the replacement of Alan Dukes with John Bruton after the 1990 presidential election was followed in 1992 by FG losing 12 seats, and the coup against John Bruton in 2001 was followed by a loss of 23 seats in 2007.

The omens don’t look good, and FG are currently giving all appearances of being a disorganised and squabbling rabble, concerned mainly about positions and poll ratings rather than policy ideas, facing an utterly bankrupt and discredited government who have crashed the economy into a wall at 80mph and are now pushing it over the cliff in the hope of salvaging parts from the wreckage.

Labour had better up their game for this country’s sake.


Daragh McDowell 06.15.10 at 3:37 pm

I think Fine Gael’s major problem is that while insiders familiar with the party (such as Maria, and to a lesser extent myself as I come from the same blueshirt stock) may be cognisant of the internal currents of political thought within it, the entirety of its electoral message since Kenny took over (and in fairness for many years before) has been ‘its our turn now.’ FF and FG have increasingly looked like technocratic parties but without the technocrats – at root, parties built on long-standing organisational roots that exist to promote reasonably competent apparatchicks up the value chain, allowing the gentle ebb and flow of the electorate to vault one or the other into power with the support of Labour or whatever fourth party is currently running around trying to inject some ideas into the place.

And for a while it worked. Then, in the run-up to this election, things got so bad so fast that people started actively looking for an alternative vision rather than alternative cabinet. And Fine Gael does not do vision. Nor does Fianna Fail for that matter. Labour have the vaguest idea of how to present themselves ideologically, philosophically and to present some idea of how they see the country developing. And the people are turning to them basically out of a (well-founded) belief that there’s no-where else to go.


hix 06.15.10 at 7:35 pm

“But they’d be a bullet dodged, compared with Christian Democrats from Hessen, to say nothing of their Morlock sister party in Bavaria.”

According to which criteria? That makes no sense to me. The CSU is more to the left of the CDU consensus while the hessen CDU is far more to the right. The CSUjust always wins the elections, so Bavaria is more right wing than Hessen. Think about how Hessen would look after Koch were in power for 60 years.


Mrs Tilton 06.16.10 at 7:52 am

hix @15

The CSU is more to the left of the CDU consensus while the hessen CDU is far more to the right. The CSUjust always wins the elections, so Bavaria is more right wing than Hessen.

I am still trying to unpack the logic in that, and doubtless will be for the rest of my life.

The CSU is arguably less “right wing” on some economic issues than (most factions of) the CDU. That’s not a terribly interesting fact, though. In Germany, the party for those whose right-wingedness is purely economic isn’t either version of the Union anyway. On just about any social issue, the CSU is far to the right of the CDU mainstream and somewhat to the right even of Koch’s (now Bouffier’s) state party in Hessen.

As I live there, I’d rather think about what Hessen would look like after Koch were sentenced to prison for 60 years.


David 06.16.10 at 4:00 pm

Is the title of this post from Scrap Saturday, or am I absolutely losing my reason.


Paddy Matthews 06.16.10 at 4:50 pm

Is the title of this post from Scrap Saturday, or am I absolutely losing my reason.

A tearful Gerry Collins cameo on the 6 o’clock news originally, although Scrap Saturday milked it for all it was worth.


Daragh McDowell 06.17.10 at 4:49 pm

Well its all over now. And what have we learned? Not much. Especially since they took the decision to shred the ballots to avoid any *ahem* embarassment.


otto 06.17.10 at 4:56 pm

So farewell then, Richard Bruton…


Paddy Matthews 06.17.10 at 6:41 pm

Bruton is the brains of the operation

We all dodged a bullet in that case.


Paddy Matthews 06.18.10 at 1:36 pm

And what have we learned?

That it’s unwise to attempt a coup without getting the Poor Bloody Infantry onside?

That the coup-plotters, in the words of Phil Hogan, seemed “incapable of running a septic tank never mind a country”?

That Mayomen don’t always choke when they get up to Dublin?

(Gaelic football in-joke there. Gaelic football, for the benefit of some of the coup-plotters, is a rather rough-and-tumble team sport popular in the wilder parts of the countryside and the occasional working-class suburb of Dublin.)

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