MANDY JOHNSTON: Think-ins are the has-beens of Irish politics
THE time has come to do away with the concept of political party ‘think-ins’. They have become somewhat of a contradiction in terms. At the very least, they should be reclassified as ‘listen-ins’ to more accurately reflect the type of promotional jamborees they have now become.
Proceedings have inexplicably morphed into mini-Ard Fheisenna, the less sophisticated country cousin of the main political set piece, where larger parties set out their stall ahead of the Dáil’s return.
So far, this year’s series of events leaves one forming the distinct impression that all of the real pondering, plotting and planning has effectively been concluded long before anyone even arrives at the red carpet of a rural hotel.
The days of gargle-gate-type beanos and tales of late-night drinking are long gone. You’re far more likely to hear that someone has choked to death on their spinach and avocado smoothie.
Now, all that remains to be done at the party think-in is for the foot soldiers to listen and learn what their party generals have planned for the next Dáil term.
In the past, the opportunity for political parties to assemble en masse outside Dublin has proven extremely useful in a number of ways. It provided a vehicle for public representatives to listen to the thoughts of external, lateral thinkers and it allowed for internal debate on important issues. Sadly, so far, the think-in class of 2017 have displayed an appalling scarcity of imagination at a time when we face multifaceted dangers on our immediate political horizon.
Acute macro and geopolitical considerations on Brexit, the EU, and Trump’s United States, which deserve a higher level of scrutiny from our political establishment, were hardly touched.
As the final flourish of summer faded, Jean-Claude Juncker then waded in with a bullish annual ‘State of the Nation’ address to MEPs in Strasbourg and told us that there was wind in Europe’s sails again. Those distant thermals threaten to blow Ireland off kilter. During his speech, Mr Juncker waxed lyrical about a resurgent Europe, alive to the possibility of more tax harmonisation in a post-Brexit EU.
European powerbrokers’ longer-term desire for a broader political commitment on tax harmonisation illustrates just how perilously entangled Ireland could become in a much greater political game of Europe versus the UK and the US. Notwithstanding this perfect opportunity to have a more open debate about Ireland’s future in Europe at party think-ins, the common theme was, “nothing to see here folks, move on”.
Instead, domestic micro-issues took centre stage, stifling any notion of abstract thought on deeper concerns.
The urgent requirement to address pressing concerns like homelessness and the health crisis cannot be overemphasised. However, some might contend that various announcements made by Fine Gael, in particular, would have been more suitable for Government buildings than a party-political event in Clonmel, Co Tipperary.
For example, take its commitment to pursue a strategy to restructure Nama to assist with the housing crisis. While a welcome development, it seemed particularly opportunistic. At times, Leo Varadkar’s new public relations unit sails dangerously close to appearing (and behaving) like a single-party Government mouthpiece.
Spin doctors seem to have forgotten that independent ministers, who form an important part of the makeup of this Government, are only ever one press release away from a hissy fit. There may come a time when going it alone for the sake of headlines has consequences. Demarcation lines between Government promotions and political party propaganda are subtle and tricky. It’s a delicate balancing act that appears slightly lost on Mr Varadkar’s strategic media unit in the first flush of its enthusiasm.
Oh, and just when you thought the ‘Republic of Opportunity’ was the most nauseating jingoistic phrase Fine Gael could come up with, its think-in provided yet another one. Education Minister Richard Bruton was charged with assembling a ‘living manifesto’, an organic strategy document which will test ideas before they are introduced and evolve with policy changes. Genius. Essentially, Fine Gael has come up with a 21st century term for moving the political goal posts from now until 2025.
Other parties fared no better at their meetings, either in terms of breaking away from their internal challenges or micro matters. Sinn Féin’s think-in on the outskirts of Dublin served only as an opportunity to quell debate about whether Gerry Adams would remain as leader for yet another year. The poor old Labour Party message got completely swept aside by ex-Garda commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan’s long-awaited premature retirement.
Next week, Fianna Fáil takes its roadshow to Longford. It remains to be seen if Micheál Martin can save the summer sojourns by injecting some broader national thinking on international issues, or at the very least by introducing some new dynamic into his own party’s think-in.
The paucity of original and imaginative debates at these set pieces only leads bored journalists into a search for some real news. If parties do not create news, then journalists will make some. Lapsing into some catatonic trance, story-starved hacks are invariably forced to ask about post-election partnerships. Fine Gael, Labour and Sinn Féin all succumbed to breathless declarations about who they would and would not be prepared to enter government with after the next election.
Demonstrating they have learned absolutely zero from the ludicrous levels of deliberations which engulfed the last Election, it is worth remembering it was this absolute obsession with post-election computations which starved the last election cycle of any real policy analysis. The only thing that election succeeded in creating was a completely paralysed Dáil, so uniquely confusing no one could even define it. Eventually, with nothing else to cling to, we called the political Frankenstein “new politics”. Back then, we naively thought it was the dawn of a new era in Irish politics. Instead, we have a different type of power, which is really just old politics but a bit worse. News flash folks – political parties do not create the next government, that job falls to Irish voters.
What have we learned from think-ins this year? Not a great deal so far. With no big new ideas or lateral thinking, this year’s pre-Dáil season has resembled a massive echo chamber of what the political elite think the public want to hear.
Like embattled broadcaster George Hook, political party think-ins were of their day. They were of a time when it was all about being inside. Now they just smack of smugness and insularity.
If Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn have taught us anything, it is that the way in which politicians persuade the electorate has changed fundamentally. The real power now lies outside the red ropes and closed doors, not behind them.
The common theme was, ‘nothing to see here folks, move on’
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the Fine Gael think-in, which took place at the Minella Hotel, Clonmel, Co Tipperary. Photo: Mark Condren