An edited version of this article appeared in Village magazine, March 2016 edition
The story of an election is much more than a few headlines, but the Irish Times front pages, absent of the kind of blatantly partisan positioning seen in its Talbot Street rival, 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 expressed marked preferences in the run-up to the general election, the Irish Times front page generally managed a more neutral stance, particularly in comparison to the anti-Sinn Féin headlines which dominated the Irish Independent during the February campaign.
The ‘newspaper of record’ began the month in ‘phony war’ mode, leading on Monday 1 February with coalition plans to “target home buyers and parents in poll pledges”. On 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 under 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 involve 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).
The leading election narrative, as dominated by Fine Gael (at least on the front page) changed dramatically in the second week. The murderous Regency hotel killing 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, Mary Lou McDonald attacked the government for being soft on crime during an RTE radio debate. By the end of the week, the lead Irish Times story that Garda “may be issued with new weapons” helped somewhat to restore Frances Fitzgerald’s battered image, but you know you’re in trouble when Sinn Féin are attacking you from the right on crime. Meanwhile, below the fold, the news was no better. Lowry, Drumm and Luas strikes bubbled under, and the Times awarded the first TV debate to Micheál Martin.
Week Three began with Labour striking out on its own to create a separate identity, promising “an abortion vote in any new deal”. 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 a 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 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: “Canvasser for Adams owns hay shed where ‘Slab’ Murphy cash was found.”
‘Slab’ was also the subject of a late Irish Times editorial column, one of the few passionate leader columns from the paper which otherwise despaired of the “short election, short of vision”.
But while front pages covered national trends, debates and polls, and columnists inside the paper gave vent to their particular viewpoints, from Fintan O’Toole to Noel Whelan, perhaps the most concise piece of election reporting on what happened on election day was by religious correspondent Patsy McGarry, who on the day of the count reported from the north inner city, less than ten minutes from the Irish Times offices, in a neighbourhood where few read the paper of record, and fewer would share its editorial concerns.