The political revolution: coming to a computer screen near you

NOW WE KNOW where Enda Kenny has been for the past couple of months: on ice

NOW WE KNOW where Enda Kenny has been for the past couple of months: on ice. And how do we know that? Because he returned this week, in a video on the new Fine Gael website in which he had only been half-defrosted.

It is only a minute long, and he is sitting at a cafe table with coffee, notepaper, flowers – as if you, Joe Voter, have just sat opposite. He begins halfway through a sentence, “. . . actually, I wanted to talk to you about how we’re going to get out of this mess?” Hold on, what’s with the actually? Perhaps, in an unseen preamble, he has tricked us into sitting down with a free biscuit.

Sentences come . . . well, not quite thick and fast so much as gloopy and slow. Kenny stalls after each one, as if someone off-screen is whispering “talk, talk!” while his right hand seems to have been given free reign to improvise, going wild for 30 seconds only to freeze with embarrassment.

Why examine it in such detail? Because Fine Gael wants you to stare. This is its first big concept of the campaign, and there’s no harm in it. It’s probably better than the previous site, and it’s eye-catching in a way, but it’s still cynical, showy and superficial. It is old-style politics with a little more whizzbangery.


Whenever someone looks as if they want to be seen to do something – to be innovative or different – be wary when the big idea is “I know, let’s make a website!” Farmleigh produced a website, the still largely dormant Fine Gael has revamped its site, based on months of work and focus-group research through which the party discovered that – and you may want to sit down – there is a “disconnect between the public and politicians”.

So, let’s get this straight. Fine Gael is a national organisation, with representatives in pretty much every town in the country. Who meet people every day; who seek them out in their homes, at wakes, at Mass, through clinics and supermarket openings. Who read the papers, watch TV and listen to the radio. And they needed research to learn that people feel disconnected from politics and a website to discover what people think is wrong with the system? If they’re that efficient now, what will they be like in government?

So here we are at the beginning of an election that will take place online more than ever before, but with little sign that the main parties will use it in any truly impressive way. No party and few candidates, as yet, appear capable of winning the online space in the way that Barack Obama did – although, in a time of national crisis, he was a transformative figure leading a popular movement. We’re in a national crisis. And Enda Kenny is the leader of Fine Gael.

Regarding the British general election, one commentator complained: “The political parties were treating Twitter just like another letter box through which to poke leaflets – but failing to grasp the idea that such systems require two-way communication to be effective.” Time will tell how two-way Fine Gael’s “conversation” really is.

The best digital campaigning will come from those who look sincere rather than cynical – candidates who already have a presence on Twitter or Facebook and understand that social media demands genuine engagement, not the waste product of some focus-group feast.

We’ll also see if this is truly a digital election. As yet there is no obvious Irish online media outlet with the ability to shape debate: that power remains very much in the hands of the traditional media. There will be online comment and analysis that is immediate and insightful, cutting and funny, but in order to be a game-changer it might need a moment to be caught on a camera phone, or maybe a stray Twitter remark. Simon Coveney’s tweet about Brian Cowen being “drunk or hungover” sparked a story that went international and allowed people to talk openly about something only previously insinuated. It had a lasting effect on Cowen’s reputation. Were something like that to happen in the final fortnight of a campaign, it could prove crucial.

And the web will be the main venue for genuinely good satire. It will be quick and it will be merciless. A reworked version of Kenny’s video was on YouTube by Wednesday. It slows him down so that his speech is slurred. He has a black eye and a smoking cigarette beside a bottle of Buckfast. It is the most ingenious and reactive thing that is likely to come of Fine Gael’s big idea.

Ross O’Carroll-Kelly returns next week

Shane Hegarty

Shane Hegarty

Shane Hegarty, a contributor to The Irish Times, is an author and the newspaper's former arts editor