The story of an election is much more than a few headlines, but the Irish Times front pages mercifully, if languidly, devoid of the kind of blatantly partisan positioning seen elsewhere, provide in hindsight a neat narrative of the campaign, with the slow realisation that Fine Gael was in trouble, the lack of a clear alternative emerging, and of course, “events, dear boy”.
While its columnists and editorials may have declaimed preferences in the run-up to the general election, the Irish Times‘ front page generally affected a more neutral stance, certainly by comparison with the anti-Sinn Féin headlines which dominated the Irish Independent and its Sunday sister during the February campaign.
The ‘newspaper of reference’ (formerly “of “record”) began the month in ‘phoney war’ mode, leading on Monday 1 February with coalition plans to “target home buyers and parents in poll pledges”. On the Tuesday, with still no election date declared, the story was “Taoiseach prepares Fine Gael ministers for election”. Perhaps ominously, on both days the below- the-fold story concerned the revelations regarding “Grace” a young woman with intellectual disabilities abused while in HSE care in a foster home. The story would feature again several times during the month and, by the end of the campaign, would threaten to inculpate Michael Noonan.
Wednesday’s paper finally brought the official election notice, leading with Fine Gael ministers outlining their election promises, but the shine was short lived. Thursday, and the first election poll, brought “disappointing news for Coalition parties”. Much of the remainder of the campaign was spent trying to push back against those low poll numbers, which stubbornly refused to rise. By the first weekend, Fine Gael had announced a “tax U-turn to hit voters earning €100K” (the top 10% of all earners, though Irish Times readers would be better paid than the average).
The election narrative was dominated at first by Fine Gael (at least on the front page) but it changed dramatically in the second week. The murderous Regency Hotel rampage called attention to cuts in Garda numbers and resources and Fine Gael, which prides itself as a law and order party, found itself on the back foot. At one point Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald attacked the government for being soft on crime during an RTÉ radio debate. By the end of the week, the lead story that Garda “may be issued with new weapons” helped to restore marginally Frances Fitzgerald’s battered image, but you know you (we?) are in trouble when Sinn Féin are attacking you from the right on crime. Meanwhile, bubbling below the fold, the news was no better. Lowry, Drumm and Luas strikes festered, and the Times awarded the first TV debate to Micheál Martin.
Week Three began with Labour striking out to create a separate identity, promising “an abortion vote in any new deal” – definitely a plus for liberal Irish Times readers. Smaller parties got their first acknowledgement the following day, as the lead reported they did best in the previous night’s debate. For the rest of the week, it was almost as if the Irish Times tired of the “boring” election campaign, with more conventional “newsy” lead stories on an HSE inquiry into baby deaths, welfare benefits for migrants, and Brexit.
Week Four began with the writing on the wall, summarised in a single Monday headline “Martin and FF rise in polls as Coalition stagnate”. Tuesday the paper reported Kenny and Martin had “equal backing in race for Taoiseach”, and the final TV debate failed to resolve anything for this hard-to-please newspaper as “leaders fail to land killer punch”, before Kenny’s “last-ditch call for vote in favour of stability.” Below the fold on the same day, the first mention of Sinn Féin in a front-page headline volunteered no favours: “Canvasser for Adams owns hay shed where ‘Slab’ Murphy cash was found”.
‘Slab’ was also the subject of one of the few passionate editorial columns (now perhaps self-deprecatingly titled “the Irish Times view”). Others quite reasonably despaired of the “short election, short of vision”.
But while front pages covered national trends, debates and polls, and columnists inside the paper from Una Mullally (who, surprisingly for someone with a political agenda, gave up interest) to Breda O’Brien (vote for people of conscience, if you know what I mean) via Fintan O’Toole (who in the end detected an unlikely victory for social democracy) and Noel Whelan (who again somehow spotted the Fianna Fáil revolution implausibly early) ventilated partisan viewpoints, perhaps the most concise reportage on what happened on election day was by religious affairs correspondent Patsy McGarry, who on the day of the count reported from the north inner city, less than ten minutes from Tara St in a neighbourhood where few read the Irish Times, and fewer would share its editorial concerns: one, a hooded man, was picking up rubbish and putting it in a black plastic bag.“I didn’t vote. I don’t have a voting card. I was abroad for five years. It’s not important at all”.