Enda Kenny and Fine Gael came into Government riding on a wave of popularity, promising that they would be different to Fianna Fail and restore Ireland’s economic fortunes. While the economy has begun to turn the corner since 2011, Fine Gael’s popularity has begun to sink ever since. Initially the party benefited from the lack of credible alternatives, but a succession of tough budgets and mini political crises has seen their popularity plunge as low as 21% (depending on which political poll you believe.)

So what is Fine Gael to do? A recent article about Pope Francis in the Economist caught my eye in this regard. The article positions the pope as a turnaround CEO in charge of a crisis-ridden company with a demoralised workforce. Swap the terms “crisis-ridden company” and “workforce” with “economy in the doldrums” and “electorate” and there’s not much difference between the Catholic Church and Ireland in many respects.

In contrast to Enda Kenny, the Pope has managed to regalvanise the Catholic Church and the main reason for this as the article points out is that “Francis has refocused his organisation on one mission: helping the poor.” The Church had been rocked by a number of scandals in recent years and was increasingly looking out of touch, but through a simple repositioning, Francis now looks like a man of the people, despite the fact that the Church’s view on a number of areas like abortion, women’s role in the Church and gay marriage still put it at odds with a number of people.

Enda Kenny should take note of Pope Francis’ success in changing perceptions and commentary about the church. Some of Fine Gael’s decline was inevitable as they had to deliver some tough cutbacks whilst reining in Government spending, but a certain degree has been their own doing as they have failed to deliver genuine political reform, despite a clear desire from the general public for a different kind of politics as highlighted by Fianna Fail’s stagnant poll numbers and the increasing popularity of the independents. People are fed up with the current political system, but don’t seem to see much choice available in terms of credible alternatives. Is it any surprise that we’re now seeing the same low levels of trust in the political system as before the last general election?

While Ireland’s economic bounceback remains heavily dependent on the global economy, Kenny has far greater control in terms of political reform. Imagine he followed Francis’ lead in terms of shunning some of the luxuries associated with his role – the Economist reports that the pope “swapped Benedict’s red shoes for plain black ones and ignored his fully loaded Mercedes in favour of a battered Ford.” If Kenny decided not to claim any expenses for example, it would be met by a positive public reaction.

Obviously delivering political reform is not as easy as it sounds as the failed Seanad referendum showed; in some ways it’s like getting turkeys to vote for Christmas. Real leaders, however, lead by example and they have to bring people on a journey. Setting out a roadmap and timeline for political reform, even if it consists of populist moves like foregoing expenses, would go some way to getting people to accept some of the cutbacks that are inevitable as part of the recession. Various sectors are reluctant to reform if the people asking them to deliver change don’t seem to be incurring any pain themselves.


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Piaras Kelly
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