Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael receive a harsh lesson in social media politics

When Solidarity/People Before Profit put forward a motion to pay student nurses, alarm bells should have been ringing in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael HQ’s. Not only was the motion non-binding and would not have given the nurses a single cent had it been passed, but public pay is also not voted on in the Dáil, it is negotiated between the Government and Trade Unions not the Government and opposition parties. It was classic party politics. Propose an unrealistic motion that the Government could not support, screenshot the voting results, hop on social media and claim the Government do not want to pay student nurses.

The issue is not that political parties are playing party politics because that is hardly a new concept, the problem is the response from Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party was so inadequate and uninformative that it left themselves wide open for a slaughtering on social media. And a slaughtering it was.

There was uproar left, right and centre across the political spectrum at the rejection of the motion. Sinn Fein led the storm of anger and continued piling on the Government around student nurses pay on social media and in the Dáil. The first night of anger, when the motion was originally rejected, there was deafening silence on the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael social media front. The live was being beat out of the two major parties in the Government and yet, silence.

In the days that followed, there were comments and explanations on the matter from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael TD’s but the damage had long been done. Tensions came to a head at their respective parliamentary party meetings this week. TDs and Senators from Fianna Fáil lambasted Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly for making his points around student nursing pay, a week too late. After all these TD’s had to endure a bombardment of public criticism for the week following the vote. The party’s youngest TD, James O’Connor is said to have complained of a lack of factual information around the issue that could have been used to counter the opposition using the emotive subject as a driving force to attack the government. TD Marc MacSharry supposedly said that the entire issue had been mishandled and that serious damage had also been done. In truth, a lot of responsibility should lie on the shoulders of Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly, who’s department handles student nursing pay. If anybody were to give an explanation on the matter plus keep the student nurses happy, it was him.

Similar events occurred in the Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting, with those such as Emer Higgins and Charlie Flanagan reserving strong criticism for the handling of the controversy and also complaining of a lack of adequate and timely briefings on the subject. Tánaiste Leo Varadkar suggested that the party had to do far better tactically and foresee any potential traps in the future.

If Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are serious about avoiding any similar events, they should look to some of Sinn Fein’s social media activities as a guide. The keyword in that sentence being “some”. What Sinn Fein are fantastic at on social media is reactivity. They are highly alert and attentive, ready to respond to any slip ups or points of contention created by the Government.

To demonstrate this point, I will use an example. On the 12th of November this year, it was revealed that the Government were proposing to appoint Geraldine Feeney to the Standards in Public Office (SIPO). The problem Sinn Fein saw with this appointment was that Feeney had been a lobbyist for the NAGP and this meant a conflict of interest as SIPO were launching an investigation into the leaking of a document by Leo Varadkar to a member of the NAGP. Pearse Doherty brought it up in the Dáil and within literal seconds of leaving the Dáil chamber he began recording himself talking about the issue as he walked back to his office. This meant Sinn Fein were ‘breaking the news’ in effect on social media and any media outlets reporting on the claim thereafter ended up sharing Pearse Doherty’s video.

While Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are in Government and Sinn Fein are not, and they require to take up a far more defensive position than offensive when it comes to dealing with slip up or points of contention, the reactive concept on social media applies the exact same. The moment they knew Solidarity/People Before Profit were to propose a motion to pay student nurses, a motion they knew they could not vote for, a motion that would lead to public outrage if they rejected it, they should have got their respective front benches in front of the camera. Using the hashtag of the day, they could have explained the Government’s position and why they could not vote for such motion. They should also have made it very clear that student nurses (where applicable) would be paid. A pre-empted move such as that would have taken the wind out of the sails of the motion and the media would also have picked up on it meaning the public would have been relatively informed about the subject before the vote had even taken place.

People may point to hindsight in this piece, but a similar event occurred in the handling of the Mother and Baby Homes bill in October, in which the Government failed to properly inform the public of what had to be done before voting on the bill and received a barrage of criticism for it. You cannot always rely on the mainstream media to explain ever bill and motion to the public, sometimes if you want something done right, do it yourself.

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