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Jennifer O’Connell: Fine Gael’s elitist and dangerous dabbling in populist tropes

Efforts to speak for ‘ordinary, plain people of Ireland’ ring hollow amid homelessness and protesters blocking Port Tunnel

Someone in the Fine Gael communications office has been watching MTV Cribs.

“Hi guys, I’m outside the Mansion House,” Cllr James Geoghegan told the party’s social media followers on Tuesday, grinning like Snoop Dogg about to invite them on a tour of his personal basketball court and four-car garage.

“I’ve good news and, right around the corner, just up the road, Minister of State at the Office of Public Works Patrick O’Donovan is going to share it with you.”

What could it be, viewers must have been wondering, as the drone camera swooped off overhead before landing on St Stephen’s Green. A final price for the children’s hospital? Had they found the €2 billion that has permanently vanished into the ether from Seán Quinn’s Anglo bet?


No, it was O’Donovan’s crib. Not the MTV version – this was the kind featuring donkeys and sheep. Following Green Party Lord Mayor Caroline Conroy’s decision to ban the live crib from the Mansion House, O’Donovan says he was inundated with people who were “horrified”, so he planned to resurrect it on St Stephen’s Green.

“It’s easy to throw traditions under the bus – the crib is a traditional part of Christmas,” O’Donovan said during a 12-minute interview with Claire Byrne, into which he shoehorned 22 variations of the word “tradition”. He was representing “the silent majority who value tradition… The Office of Public Works is really responding to the ordinary, plain people of Ireland who are saying it is not a bad thing to stand for traditional values.” On he went, warming to his theme. “The next thing that will be ditched in this country now will probably be the word Christmas.”

This seems to be a reference to Fáilte Ireland’s “Winter in Dublin” campaign, to which he has taken offence – although as a tourism initiative which runs from November 1st through to the end of January, “winter” seems perfectly apt.

Live crib

The posturing over the fate of the live crib might have been intended as a bit of light relief, but it went way beyond parody. Nobody in the communications office seems to have considered the optics of a junior minister summoning the full resources of the OPW to find accommodation for a few farm animals in the centre of Dublin in the middle of a homelessness crisis. As it transpired, the timing couldn’t have been more dreadful.

The same day, in a different part of the city, a group of 27 tenants were getting notice of eviction from their home in Dublin 8. The residents, many of them migrants, have been told by their landlord to move out of the corrugated metal prefab by December 16th, as it is a fire hazard.

The story landed on the front of the newspapers like a bleak 2022 version of the Nativity, brought to you by the Government’s mismanagement of the housing issue. Unlike the Holy Family, these shed-dwellers were paying between €500 and €600 each for access to three shared toilets, two showers and a single kitchen.

Meanwhile, a few kilometres away, a group were preparing to block the Port Tunnel in protest over an asylum-seeker accommodation centre in East Wall. One group of desperate migrants facing eviction from an unsafe, unauthorised building; another arriving into a strange country to be faced with placards and people roaring “Out, out, out”. Forget the crib; these are our real Christmas traditions now.

Grenade by Dukes

The Coalition is reportedly concerned about the role of the far-right in stoking up the protests at East Wall and other locations. It is right to be worried – the idea that extremist politics could experience a resurgence almost everywhere except Ireland was always delusional. This makes mainstream government politicians dabbling in populist stunts all the more egregious.

O’Donovan’s effort to marshal an urban/rural culture war involved tapping into the jaded populist trope of a “silent majority” of right-thinking people who are not represented by the media or politicians. This is invariably a fiction, a metapolitical illusion: the “silent majority” are always a loud minority. If the “ordinary, plain people of Ireland” – another empty and irksomely patronising phrase that should be binned – are united on anything, it’s that they are fed up waiting for the Government to solve the housing issue. Nobody could have planned for the 65,000 migrants who would arrive here this year needing shelter. But they should have foreseen the 11,000 homeless.

Fine Gael got a quick schooling in why co-opting the language of populism is hard to pull off when you are the establishment, thanks to a grenade lobbed in from the sidelines by former party leader Alan Dukes.

Dukes made the astonishing claim during the Quinn Country documentary that Border people have “violence in their blood… They’ll more easily turn to it than anybody else.” It was a strange, supercilious and deeply divisive statement. His interjection – which he initially tried to explain away as sympathy for these communities, before eventually unreservedly apologising – arrived as an early Christmas gift to Seán Quinn. He could hardly have dared to imagine anyone pipping him to the title of “worst person in Ireland” just as the three-part documentary wound to a close.

Dukes may no longer be politically active, but the impression of a party that sometimes thinks itself better than the people it serves was unavoidable. It also neatly illustrated the conundrum for O’Donovan and others who may be considering flirting with populist tropes or stoking up imaginary culture wars. It’s hard to pass yourself off as the true voice of the “ordinary, plain” people when you are increasingly regarded as the out-of-touch elites.