- 24 Jan 20
The general election was called at short notice. And timed for a Saturday. Was this a way of neutralising the youth vote? Whatever, with the campaign in full swing, it is important to think hard – because in this election, every vote will count...
When we were planning the Hot Press ‘Hot for 2020’ Special Issue, we knew that the prospect of a general election would have to get a mention somewhere. In the run-up to the re-opening of the Dáil, after the Christmas break, however, events gathered a different kind of momentum.
The Dáil arithmetic – precarious at the best of times over the past few years – had changed as a result of the November by-elections and the resignation of Fine Gael’s Dara Murphy. Another vote of no confidence in the Minister for Health, Simon Harris, was being cooked up. Now, the numbers screamed, abstention by Fianna Fáil would not be enough to immunise the Minister for Health. Neither was there any hope that the party would oppose a no confidence motion. Fianna Fáil had reached the end of the confidence and supply road. Whatever Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin might have felt personally about keeping the old show on the go, the rumblings of discontent among his backbenchers were beginning to get far too insistent to ignore. As Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, did his best to read the runes. He’d certainly have liked another three or four months in power. But if Simon Harris was not going to survive a motion of no confidence, there was no point in hanging around and having to go to the country on the back of an unnecessary embarrassment. It was time to cut and run.
RIDICULOUS VAR DECISIONS
The Taoiseach still took a huge number of people by surprise when the announcement was made. For a start, the date of the election, February 8, was alarmingly close. What’s more, for the first time since 1918, Leo Varadkar had chosen a Saturday for citizens to go to the polls. In addition, the timing is such that those citizens who have been added to the electoral register since the European and local elections last year will not be entitled to vote: the new register only becomes valid on February 15.
It is hard to be sure how much of this is as a result of careful analysis. Almost certainly, the decision to make the campaign a short one was designed to wrong-foot the opposition. Was talk of the Taoiseach having a preference for a May election a mere smokescreen? Probably. Fine Gael were preparing behind the scenes. The Taoiseach and his advisers may have reasoned that – whatever about Fianna Fáil – smaller parties and independents are likely to find it hard to build momentum in the short time available.
Was running a week ahead of the validation of the new register a cock-up or a cunning plan? Potential first-time voters were still entitled to get their names on the supplementary register. But, with January 22 as the cut-off point, that route is now firmly closed.
Only within the inner circles of Fine Gael do they really know why Leo Varadkar and his advisers didn’t delay the election by a week, and let everyone vote. If the decision was a deliberate one, it suggests that Fine Gael feared that younger voters were more likely to support the Greens, or some of the smaller, independent, left-leaning parties. Where even a tiny number of votes can make all the difference, limiting the influence of first-time voters might well be in Fine Gael’s interest.
At first glance, the decision to hold the election on a Saturday suggests a contrary desire to enable students to vote. There is, however, no consensus in relation to what will actually happen here. Many students have part-time weekend jobs, close to where they study. Usually they vote in their parents’ constituency, and can take time off from studying to make the necessary trip home. But taking time off from those pesky weekend earners, especially on what will be a big sporting Saturday, is a different matter entirely.
So who is more – or less – likely to vote on a Saturday than a weekday? A Fine Gael strategist must have advanced some class of an argument. They may even have done a bit of market research. But the reality is that no one knows for sure. Certainty will come only on the morning after polling day.
Here at Hot Press, we have our own gripes in relation to timing. When the next Taoiseach is asking for the dissolution of the Dáil, can I respectfully suggest that he or she should first put a call through to Hot Press central to check what our preferred date for the election might be? Thank you. That would be much appreciated.
I mean, come on! What sort of bullshit are we expected to put up with here at HP towers? It’d be like someone deciding that Electric Picnic was going to happen on a Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday! It is an outrage, on a par at least with the lunacies inflicted on football followers by VAR.
If the election were a week later, on February 15, we’d have two issues to properly scrutinise the whole frantic business. The second one would hit the streets nine days before polling day – ample time for readers to absorb anything and everything we might have to say on the whole farrago. Instead, the election is just two days after our next issue is published. Has nobody got any consideration any more?
We’d by far prefer to have the luxury of a longer run-in. But then we’d also like to have a couple of dozen utterly ridiculous VAR decisions overturned.
So fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride over the next fifteen days. Early indications – notably in the Behaviour & Attitudes poll commissioned by the Sunday Times – are that Micheál Martin and Fianna Fáil have the upper-hand. Most pundits are predicting that they will take the biggest number of seats. But nothing should be taken for granted. Election campaigns can twist off in unpredictable directions. And, in the end, it will come down to what sort of coalition can be cobbled together. Between now and polling day, keep a close eye on hotpress.com for ongoing election updates. It is still all to play for...
FLEEING TO BERLIN
In many ways, at the start of a new decade, it feels like Ireland might just be at a major crossroads. The establishment view is that things have been ticking along just fine. We have recovered from the economic collapse that started in 2007, and which has blighted so many lives ever since. On the surface, this might be true. Employment in Ireland is at record levels. We have experienced a period of sustained growth in the economy. Tax revenues have continued to climb. In theory, we are thriving.
The reality on the ground is utterly different.
Over the past five years and more, the government has failed to do anything useful in relation to homelessness. What had originally been depicted as a crisis has lasted for years – to the extent that it might be better described as the new normal. Except, sadly, that it is getting worse. People have been dying on the streets as a result, or been ripped from their miserable waterside tents by industrial diggers. It is hard to believe that it has come to this.
The same is true in relation to housing. Not enough houses are being built. The demand for accommodation is far greater than the supply. This transfers a totally unjust power to landlords, who are now in a position to screw tenants royally. Rents are soaring. Young people are being put in a position where they simply cannot afford to pay the market rates. People are being forced to live in squalid conditions. Others, in their twenties and their thirties, are being forced back into their parents’ home. And far too many are being turfed out onto the streets, an ignominy from which a significant proportion are unlikely ever to recover.
The whole thing is a stinking mess, and no one in government has reflected any of the dynamic sense of urgency that the situation merits. It is criminal that people are being forced to pay €2,000 a month in rent for a house or an apartment that can be built for €200,000 – and yet they cannot get a mortgage because of restrictions imposed by the Central Bank. That vicious circle must be broken. Let’s forget about finicky by-laws and requirements that are too rigid. Common sense is what matters. Everyone knows that we need cheaper accommodation to rent. That we need social housing. And that we need affordable housing for those who might aspire to owning their own homes.
Unless you are determined to live on the streets, it is a fundamental human right to have a roof over your head, so that you can sleep in peace. It is the responsibility of Government to ensure that the housing necessary to fulfil that need is provided. This is an issue which is of huge concern to younger people.
So what are the political parties proposing in relation to housing? How will they address the problem? How much are they willing to invest? Where is the money that’s required to build going to come from? What are their taxation policies? Is there a mismatch? The bottom line is that as a society, we have to accept that if we want public services – and we all use them – then we have to be willing to pay for them.
The same applies to social and affordable housing. There is no room here whatsoever for unnecessary delays. The next government must, if necessary, be willing to drive down the price of houses and the cost of renting them. They need to challenge fiscal orthodoxy to whatever extent is necessary to achieve that end. Far more important than anything else is to address the appalling situation – which has been created by a lethal combination of chance and the ideology that the market will take care of things – where Irish people, and young Irish people in particular, cannot afford to live in the capital, or indeed increasingly in any of our major cities.
As we have highlighted on a number of occasions in Hot Press, artists and bands have been fleeing to Berlin and elsewhere. It is the brain drain all over again, as some of our best and brightest creative talents abandon ship. Anger is growing. So too is a feeling of alienation. The gap between the rich, and the disadvantaged, has never been greater.
RUTHLESS GANGLAND VIOLENCE
It would be wrong to claim that things are going to hell in a hand cart here in Ireland. The truth is that we have one of the most progressive tax systems in the world. Our democracy is also among the most genuinely representative. But long-standing social and political prejudices, combined with poor management, have left us with a legacy of serious problems, to correct which will require heavy investment.
Housing is vital but it is just the tip of the iceberg. At times it feels like we are knee deep in shit. That’s because we are.
• Why is our system of childcare at once so criminally expensive and unfit for purpose? We have a bureaucracy which is great at creating impossibly demanding rules and not very good at acknowledging the disastrous outcomes.
• Why is insurance so expensive? And why has the insurance industry been allowed to get away with the brazen fiction that the number and cost of claims is going up, when this is simply not true?
• It would be churlish to try to pin the blame for our appalling deficiencies in health on any one Minister. When has it ever been otherwise? Listening to experts, they all agree on one thing: there is no quick fix, and anyone who promises one cannot be taken seriously. There are too many competing vested interests blocking the road. But a way forward has to be found which will ensure that people in the public health system are not left waiting years for vital operations that private patients can access within a matter of weeks.
• You should also ask candidates how they intend to approach the issue of the decriminalisation of drugs.
Almost every objective expert agrees that the drug policies we have been pursuing have been useless, when it comes to addressing the issues of addiction, gangland violence, and other associated criminal activity. Here in Hot Press, we have argued for years that the War on Drugs is a failure. We have been saying this for a long time now, and parts of the world are finally catching up, with very positive outcomes.
We need to adopt the same approach. Wrestling drugs out of the hands of criminal gangs is potentially transformative. The likelihood, I suspect, is that a Citizen’s Assembly would indicate that there is a general acceptance that the biggest drugs problem is criminalisation. So why are our politicians incapable of recognising this?
On the run-in to election day, we are in the middle of a particularly ghastly epidemic of utterly ruthless gangland violence. The Gardaí may eventually make arrests and take the worst culprits off the streets. But whatever gaps are created in the criminal hierarchies will be filled by more young guns. A radical new approach is needed. And it does not involve internment.
NATIONAL MATERNITY HOSPITAL
Finally, for now, I want to touch on the insidious power still wielded by the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland. In certain respects, their deathly grip has been loosened, notably in relation to same sex marriage and abortion. But the State had farmed so many of its core responsibilities – in particular in education and in health – to agents of the Vatican that the religious orders and the Catholic hierarchy are fighting a successful rearguard action, still holding onto what is not theirs, or should never have been.
The ongoing battle in relation to the ownership of the new National Maternity Hospital is just one case in point. How is it that this has yet to be resolved in a way that corresponds with the decision made by the people in the referendum to Repeal the 8th Amendment? Where is the fierce urgency that we were told existed in relation to moving from Holles Street now? We must know every party’s position on this issue in advance of the election.
There can be no compromise: the Roman Catholic Church, and its representatives must be divested of any ownership of, or control of any kind whatsoever over, the hospital and its ‘ethos’. Abortions must be available there on exactly the same basis as elsewhere in Ireland, subject only to the limits imposed by the laws of the land – and if Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael are not prepared to make an irrevocable commitment in relation to this, they must not under any circumstances be allowed back into power.
Men, of course, bear their equal share of responsibility on this issue. But the Repeal vote was won largely by the collective determination of women, and in the same spirit, it seems to me that it should be non-negotiable for women – and for men who are committed to equality – now: commit to the complete independence of the National Maternity Hospital or you – or your party – will not get my vote.
That tough line has to extend into education. The glacial pace of change to non-denominational or Educate Together schools cannot be allowed to continue. We need a Minister for Education who is committed to taking on the vested interests. Who recognises that people are entitled to 'faith education’ – but not at a cost to the exchequer. Who is prepared to legislate, if necessary, for enforced divestment by the Church.
In Hot Press, we have always erred on the side of emphasising the positive. That still applies. There are huge issues that we have to contend with in Ireland. But it would be wrong not to acknowledge that – compared even to many parts of Europe – this is a relatively benign place to live. Hate-filled, right-wing populism has not achieved lift-off. Yet. There are sinister forces out there working on it. Using the internet to spread lies and to foment hate. That is another battle ground for the next decade: how to rein in the toxic power of the tech giants. We shouldn’t take the level of freedom, and the democratic accountability which we enjoy, for granted. Nor indeed the relative prosperity.
The best way to guard against black propaganda is to cure the conditions in which it flourishes. That means providing housing. It means investment in addressing disadvantage. It means a real commitment to social justice.
February 8, 2020 could be a defining moment. If we are at a crossroads, what is the best way forward to a fairer, more equal, more just society? We should not elect a new government which fails to recognise the urgency with which these issues must be addressed. Stay tuned…
• For more on the general election, read Saoirse McHugh of the Green Party on the big environmental issues in the Hot Press Interview, page 82 this issue, with David Keenan on the front.