Derek Mooney: A Sad Tale Of Two Leaders


From top: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald; Derek Mooney

It is almost exactly two years since Leo Varadkar was selected as Fine Gael leader. On June 2, 2017 after a two-week contest involving FG members and councillors, but primarily TDs and Senators, Varadkar was declared the winner.

He beat Simon Coveney with 60% in a weighted ballot in which TDs and Senators had 65% of the total vote, the membership had 25% and councillors had 10%.

While Coveney won the popular vote among the membership (he secured 35 per cent in the membership ballot), Varadkar got the backing of 51 of the 73 members of the parliamentary party.

Six months later, in January 2018, Mary Lou MacDonald was announced to absolutely no one’s surprise as the sole candidate to succeed Gerry Adams. Adams had announced that he would step down after four decades as Sinn Féin leader at a special Árd Fheis the following month.

Where MacDonald was content to calmly succeed her leader at any time of his choosing, Varadkar had been determined to displace his. But, regardless of how they came to the job, they each came to the job with a major political asset: they were the antithesis of their predecessors.

Where Enda Kenny was a Nokia 6310 using, meat and two veg, dinner in the middle of the day man, Leo Varadkar was iPhone8, avocado toast and green tea.

Where Adams was remote, grizzly, hard faced with a whiff of cordite his favoured successor was engaging, eloquent with a whiff of Chanel Chance.

They came with something else, the expectation, if not the promise, that they would greatly improve their parties’ fortunes and lead both to even greater electoral success.

For Fine Gael that meant recovering the levels support that Kenny had won for them back in 2011, but then lost in the local election of 2014 and the disastrous general election of 2016.

When Varadkar took over in June 2017 Fianna Fáil had been consistently ahead of Fine Gael in the polls by anywhere between 2% and 5% for the previous 12 months.

The TDs who elected him, and as we have seen it was primarily the TDs not the members who backed Leo had the expectation, nay the demand, that Leo improve their fortunes fast and get them back to soundly defeating their Fianna Fáil rivals in the ballot box.

For Sinn Féin the task was clearer and – it seemed – more straight-forward. It was to continue the party’s inexorable progress and show that there was no glass ceiling through which it could not pass.

Mary Lou seemed to offer Sinn Féin a way to break with its past and make itself attractive to a middle class whose backing it needed if it was to develop its support in double digits.

And it looked, for most of 2018 and early 2019 as if both were succeeding. Within weeks of his coming to office Fine Gael’s poll numbers started to dramatically improve: the much-hailed Leo leap.

By Summer 2018 Fine Gael was 9pts ahead of Fianna Fáil in the polls. The same poll showed Mary Lou’s Sinn Féin only 2pts behind the Soldiers of Destiny.

It was like a pincer move with the two new leaders set to each take such a chunk off Fianna Fáil that they may soon see that party off the field and be ready to do direct battle with each other.

Not only was that not to be, the early poll gains started to gradually slip away leading to the point, a few weeks ago where some polls had Leo’s Fine Gael behind Fianna Fáil.

As I said here at the end of April: “We will know which one is right in just over three weeks when we have the results of the Local and European elections.”

And now we do. The electoral gains promised by both Leo and Mary Lou have not only failed to materialise, they have gone the other way. Both leaders have managed to take their parties’ fortunes back to an earlier point.

Sinn Féin is now back in single digit support: 9.5%, but even worse than that; it has lost almost half of its network of local councillors. Sinn Féin’s inexorable march forward is now a messy retreat, which has spread north of the border with its European vote falling there by over 3pts.

On the face of it, MacDonald’s party has fallen furthest, but have no doubt that Varadkar has had even bit as bad a day, he just masks it better.

While he and his close colleagues will point to European Election results, particularly in Midlands/North-West as absolute proof that the Leo leap is real and Leo can still deliver for Fine Gael, the TDs who put him in the job know that success in general elections is based on progress in local elections.

Fine Gael has picked up some extra support in the Locals, but only because it had a bad, a very bad, local elections in 2014. Leo had a low base on which he could very easily build, but he didn’t.

Fianna Fáil not only continues as the biggest party in Local government across the country it is – remarkably – the biggest single party on Dublin City Council.

Fianna Fáil’s vote share is now 2.5% higher than in the 2016 General Election whereas Fine Gael’s is down – albeit marginally.

Varadkar is now presiding over the same level of poor performance for which his backers once bayed for Enda’s scalp. Isn’t he lucky he doesn’t have a Leo Varadkar coming after him?

Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010.  Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney


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15 thoughts on “Derek Mooney: A Sad Tale Of Two Leaders

    1. Brother Barnabas

      in fairness, he’s using it in explicit reference to SF’s past and the old guard – and explicitly not with respect to the current crew [“engaging, eloquent with a whiff of Chanel Chance”] – so it’s perhaps fair enough

      1. Vanessa the Holy Face of Frilly Keane

        Ah would ya give over Brudder

        Derek can’t mention the Shinners here without that oul’ reliable added to his word count.

        1. Brother Barnabas

          maybe… i don’t always read his columns, in truth

          tell us, frillz – will mary lou be leading SF into the next GE?

          1. Vanessa the Holy Face of Frilly Keane

            I’d say so

            But wouldn’t be surprised if she spends money bringing in big ticket political operatives and strategists
            Pros like

            She might be leader and is likely to stay leader
            But she’s not managing them well

            Administratively and adhering to any form of strategic plan has been a disaster
            She’s the leader of a feckin mess
            She needs a daycent CEO/ Gen Sec
            And Campaign Dept

            That’s where the Confidence and Supply crowd have enormous strength
            What you’ll have heard a lot over the last few days
            Election Machines

  1. Cian

    Tell us about Micheál Martin’s leadership content and how he did in the subsequent election?

  2. eoin

    Also, does Derek have any views at all on the North’s euro elections where his partners, the SDLP have been relegated to #6. Of course, FF said five years ago that they themselves would contest elections in the North in 2019, but alas, they say a lot of things.

  3. Jake38

    “Mary Lou seemed to offer Sinn Féin a way to break with its past and make itself attractive to a middle class…”

    This is the core of the issue for the Shinners. There is no reason for the middle classes to vote for them.

  4. A Person

    N any Failer bias there Derek? FG have the most seats in Dublin. Comparing percentage votes with the 2016 GE is misleading and not comparable.

  5. A Person

    Not any Failer bias there Derek? FG have the most seats in Dublin. Comparing percentage votes with the 2016 GE is misleading and not comparable.

  6. Owen C

    “Leo Varadkar was iPhone8, avocado toast and green tea”

    Jeeze. Cliche much?

    “The electoral gains promised by both Leo and Mary Lou have not only failed to materialise, they have gone the other way.”

    How have FG gone the other way? You can have a subjective opinion on how they *should* have done, but from a pure mathematical perspective they will have added seats and first pref in the LE, and will possibly add a seat in the EP if they can get two in both MNW and South (admittedly off a larger number of potential seats), as well as adding a huge chunk of first pref in the EP.

    For understandable reasons (Crowley) FF’s first preferance will have haemorrhaged, but its a weird analysis to claim FG have gone backwards when their first pref is up in both elections, seats are up in LE and seats may be up in EP. Given the strength of the economy, they should be doing even better, but equally opposition parties are supposed to do better in LE/EP in between GE’s.

    The one thing i think everyone can agree on is that this has been an unmitigated disaster for SF.

  7. :-Joe

    Haha… Derek please….

    Still waiting for you to tell us the sad tale of you as a PR spin doctor for the worst government in the history of the state nay, possibly europe, crashing the economy into the earth’s core and through a black hole of more than a decade-long austerity.

    The greatest transfer of wealth from public finances to anonyous international private global financial interests in the history of known politics and economics since humanity existed. FACT.

    People need to grow up, wake up and stop swallowing all the anti-SF rhetoric and fake digs at the other half of the same party that is constantly spewed out by these bile merchants of the establishment.

    All used as a tool to stoke your tribalised instincts up into a lather so you inconceivably(to me) keep voting for these traitors and ultimately shooting yourselves and the whole country in the proverbial head.

    You’re a spoofer derek, no more, no less. I look forward to your sad tale podcast which I will mostly try to ignore also.


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