Gaffes and glory: How did the leaders do in #GE16?

Kenny and Burton have had better campaigns, while Micheál Martin might just have had the performance of a lifetime

GE16, polling stations, leaders, voting, Enda Kenny, Michael Martin, Michael D Higgins

An Taoiseach Enda Kenny casts his vote at a polling station at St Anthony's School in Castlebar, Co Mayo | Image: Brian Lawless / PA Wire/Press Association Images

Pronouncements of a “political earthquake” may feel a little over the top – we’ve got two Healy Raes, a Lowry and a Haughey safely into Leinster House, along with a revitalised Fianna Fáil – but there is no hyperbole in pronouncements that this weekend has shattered the current Irish political landscape.

There are more questions than clear paths out of this right now, but there are definite markers laid out ahead. They’ll enjoy the shroud of the dust cloud for now, but Enda Kenny and Joan Burton will soon be exposed, and it’s not looking particularly good for either Taoiseach or Tánaiste right now.

And what of Micheal Martin? The performance of a lifetime? And Gerry Adams, liability or still-totemic leader?

Enda Kenny - Fine Gael

Will he still be the first Fine Gael leader to take guide his party to retaining power? It’s possible, although the honour might feel somewhat hollow at this stage - more like crawling into the record books.

Even if the campaign had been a master-class in political theatre the result would be damning – that the campaign was so badly botched will somewhat muddy the judgement. Was it five years of austerity-based policy, or three weeks of insipid campaigning? One magnified by the other, you imagine, but the campaign could have smoothed over the economic pain if handled better.

Either way, over the course of three uninspiring weeks the coalition’s wave – which was picking up pace before Christmas - looked to be levelling out, leaving the Taoiseach bobbing in the surf.

The campaign was littered with moments of regret for Kenny – the kind of nagging ‘if only I hadn’t...’ moments you imagine might give a man faint flashback in years to come.

There was a suspicion that he would be insulated by his handlers for a large chunk of the campaign. Avoiding a head-to-head debate with Micheal Martin suggests that strategy didn’t totally fail, but the reality of several gaffes packed into the shortest election campaign in history means it probably could have done a lot better.

Early on we had the ‘jargon’. Apparently Mr Keny didn’t want to get into the ‘jargon’ of his party’s economics policy – it was something ‘ordinary people’ couldn’t understand. A bit insulting to some, you’d imagine, but embarrassing to the party when it turned out that Fine Gael, at best, didn’t understand it themselves and had miscalculated the soon-to-be notorious ‘Fiscal Space’.


One criticism often levelled at Irish national politicians is an over-focus on local issues. Stop fixing the roads and fix the economy, they’ll say. But still, nobody expects you to show as little care to your constituents as calling them a crowd of ‘whingers’.

It wasn't that bad, of course, Enda Kenny was referring to ‘some’ people in Castlebar. But couple it with the misfiring party slogan of ‘Keep the Recovery Going’ and the floundering confusion that followed the whingers moment (denial, denial, apology etc) and it was another holing beneath the water line for the party.

Ultimately, the Taoiseach was returned comfortably to his Mayo seat, so the damage was done on a national level, and done to the party rather than his own cause.

Besides all of that, this wasn't an election on personalities, it was about policy. And Fine Gael tripped themselves up early on when they ruined their carefully curated image as the party of sensible economics, when they gave into the temptation of give-away politics. The abolition of USC for all incomers was perhaps showing their hand a touch too early, allowing the opposition to reinforce their message that the recovery will never be equal under Fine Gael.

From a wider party perspective – there was an air of arrogance about Fine Gael at times, and austerity could at least have been sugar coated with humility. Michael Noonan in particular was grating for voters, and his dismissal of questions about the ‘fiscal space’ won his party few fans.

The reality is Kenny is a far more effective politician than campaigner – which, really, is not a bad thing. But political cycles invariably mean that you’ll eventually have to play a bad hand – and selling yourself on five years of harsh austerity requires someone who can inspire confidence on the campaign trail.

His time as leader of the party looks limited – Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar, and even Frances Fitzgerald, are all looking like far better bets after a disastrous campaign. Coveney and Varakar were notably absent from the public eye in the final week, while Kenny floundered on the national stage – for whatever that’s worth.

Joan Burton - Labour

Considering the end of her political career was being predicted in the final week of the campaign, Joan Burton can find some minor solace in her re-election to her Dublin West constituency – but that aside there’s little to cheer for the Labour leader.

Going into the campaign with public support having bottomed out (or so we thought), Burton had an almost impossible task of selling Labour to the people.

That task was made tougher as her deputy leader, Alan Kelly became an increasingly unwanted distraction.

The Tipperary TD became increasingly invisible as the campaign wore on, essentially becoming a non-actor on the national stage by the halfway point.

A series of issues arose around the Environment Minister in the weeks leading up to, and the opening week of the campaign.

An interview with the Sunday Independent, in which Mr Kelly said power was “a drug” that “suits me”, was soon followed by an incident in which he verbally intimidated Newstalk staff members over the Breakfast show’s choice of coverage while in Tipperary. Fellow Tipperary TD Mattie McGrath got a one-on-one interview earlier in that morning's show, before Mr Kelly joined a panel debate of candidates. The Minister was upset at this and the story of his reaction towards Newstalk staff made national headlines.

Shortly after, that The Irish Independent reported that Mr Kelly had been pushed to the sidelines of the campaign, and had seen his chances of one day assuming leadership of the party diminished.

Once Kelly had fallen from the national stage Burton then had to contest the debates. Unable to impose herself, and coming across poorly, she left each subsequent podium appearance in a worse position than before. It wasn't until the final debate when she was able to put her own mark on the proceedings. That late revival could have played a crucial role in her late bump at the ballot box.

It was a brief and minor bright point in a campaign characterised by confusion, poorly thought out messages and an utter failure to ever properly understand why the electorate were so angry with the party.

Burton’s leadership remains uncertain. Alan Kelly is seen as the natural successor by some, but the wider party is unlikely to vote him in.

She yesterday told Newstalk she “absolutely” wants to remain as leader.

Gerry Adams - Sinn Féin

As Gaffes go, Adams had one of the worst of the campaign, in the final leaders’ debate.

Hearing the Sinn Féin president ask Enda Kenny “Who’s Senator Cahill?” – in response to a question about Senator Mairia Cahill - was uncomfortable at the very best.

In the aftermath Adams claimed he didn't properly hear the Taoiseach, and we’d have to believe that, but in that one moment any floating voters keen on the Sinn Féin of now, but wary of the Sinn Féin of old, may have had their fears crystallised. Some things stick, even for Gerry.

Aside from that, there was a series of interviews and debate appearances during which Adams stumbled over the finer points of policy. This was nothing new, Adams has been floundering on the small print during election campaigns for years, and many would quite reasonably argue it is inconsequential when compared with what else he offers his party, but many analysts felt these lapses could have cost Sinn Féin valuable seats.

The campaign had started brightly. Pearse Doherty catching out the government’s budget figures was an early puncture in the “Sinn Féin can’t add" government narrative.

Aside from Gerry’s failings, the party was at times subjected to intense, aggressive press attacks which others didn't face. And while some feel that level of scrutiny and tough questioning is justifiable – and much of it is based on a desire to see the party properly face its own past - some coverage swayed between being insulting to outright ludicrous in its vitriol.

Among the criticism, Adams will always face the fog of questions about his own leadership – and what it might be costing his party.

So it was when speaking with Newstalk yesterday that Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness made a point on perspectives when it comes to Gerry. These same people who attack us at every turn tell us we’re better off without Gerry, he said. “As if they wanted us to be better off without Gerry Adams."

Those detractors “couldn’t lace Gerry Adams’ boots in terms of the political contribution he has made to the peace process," he added.

Ultimately, we might speculate that Sinn Féin lost a few seats over a few gaffes from their leader as polling neared. That’s likely to be a minor speed-bump in this long game. The party have already ruled out alliances that would put them in power, a leadership role in a left wing government remains the only acceptable way to rule for now – the long game continues.

Micheál Martin - Fianna Fáil

This election result proves there is no accounting for the Irish electorate’s forgiveness, but it certainly wasn’t a foregone conclusion for Fianna Fáil, and Micheal Martin’s leadership throughout the campaign is justifiably being credited with hauling his party back to the brink of power. In September 2014 Martin said he was envisioning becoming the next Taoiseach – and was roundly laughed out of the room. And now?

Fine Gael came into the election looking to position themselves as the steady hand on the till. But it was the Fianna Fail leader who embodied it.

To credit the coalition, they recognised Martin as the main threat when the opinion polls touted Sinn Féin as the potential danger, and attacked him at each opportunity. The line of attack was clear – they just had to stick to the facts. Martin and his party had ruined the country, they’d plunged Ireland into its worst ever financial straits, who would reasonably let them back at the wheel?

That they could never quite get the mud to stick on their charges speaks to Martin's effectiveness.

The crowning moment for Martin was undoubtedly his debate performances, with the exception of the seven leader debate – when Stephen Donnelly of the Social Democrats and Richard Boyd Barrett of AAA-PBP put in strong showings – he was the stand out leader.

Whereas the debates were damaging to each of his rivals in some way, Martin used them as a platform to propel his party’s resurgence and is now fielding questions about possible coalitions that could see him named Taoiseach.