- 19 Feb 16
As the nation heads to the polls, it’s vital to consider not just the candidates vying for our votes, but the type of country in which we want to live
Be careful what you wish for. As the clock ticks down, we are beginning to see the writing on the wall in relation to the likely shape of a new government in the Republic of Ireland. Sure, when Hot Press hits the streets there will be eight days campaigning still to be done. And the old adage is that a week is a long time in politics.
Well, on occasion it is. But that is not something on which we can rely. And unless there is a miraculous change of fortune or a late charge the equivalent of Manchester United winning every game between now and the end of the season, to pip Leicester, Tottenham and Arsenal at the post, then there is only one possible coalition to emerge from General Election 2016. We’ll come back to that in a minute...
So what sort of a government do you really want? That is the question that everyone should try to answer as we prepare to head for the polling stations.
The first thing that we would do well to acknowledge is that there is not the slightest possibility of a left-wing coalition gaining power. It was heartening to see that Richard Boyd Barrett, who is right about most things, was so well received on the first RTÉ leaders’ debate on Clare Byrne Live, earlier this week. He might even top the poll in Dun Laoghaire Rathdown. And overall, People Before Profit will perform better than ever before.
The number of left aligned TDs will not be insignificant. There is no doubt whatsoever that Sinn Féin will have by far its best-ever election in what they call The South. I have great admiration for Clare Daly, who should hold her seat in Dublin Fingal. There are other left-leaning TDs like Joan Collins and Catherine Murphy, who have brought a different kind of integrity to the Dáil and clearly deserve to be re-elected. And there are outliers like Seamus Sheridan of the Green Party in Galway West and Mick Wallace in Wexford, among others, who also warrant support. But no matter how you do the arithmetic, there really is no hope of a left-wing government emerging from the post-election debris.
A lot of voters insist that they want change. But, as The Whole Hog points out elsewhere in this issue, the nature of the change that people want varies enormously. Those on the left want to see water charges scrapped, higher taxes on the wealthy, progress on the social agenda including Repealing the 8th Amendment, and US and other multi-nationals paying far more in corporation tax.
Their opponents on the right – including Renua – want a lower tax regime, no movement whatsoever on abortion, and, probably, Ireland to do everything it can to avoid having to accept refugees from Syria or anywhere else. And there is a whole swathe of other independents, who represent nothing more radical than their own local vested interests. None of them have a hope of contributing to a coherent government.
And so it comes back to the question: what sort of a regime do you really want to take power in a few weeks time?
Since there is little or no possibility of a left-wing government, the choice is clearly between a right-wing government, comprising TDs from Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, with the support of a few independents if that is necessary; and a centre left government, just like the outgoing one.
How do the numbers add up? In the “Poll of Polls” ten days ahead of the election, between them, the two main parties of the right, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil stand at 47.5%. Add in Renua and a few independents like Micheal Healy Rea and Michael Lowry and they are comfortably over the 50% mark. What’s more, most experts agree that if the numbers remain the same, then between them – given the way proportional representation works – the two traditional main parties will pick up extra marginal seats. The truth is that they should easily be able to form a government without needing to resort to the support of independents.
Throughout the election campaign, Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin have, of course, studiously tried to distance themselves from the idea that their parties might go into coalition together. There is no other way they can play it. But, unpalatable as the prospect might be to these old, and often bitter rivals, this is mere posturing. If the numbers dictate it, then they will form a coalition. The real play now is to see who will be in the pole position in negotiations. The likelihood is still that Fine Gael will be the biggest party in the new Dáil. And Enda Kenny will be Taoiseach.
And what will the effect be? If you take the long view, then this may well be the moment that Irish politics has been waiting for. We might finally leave behind the tired remnants of the old civil war politics, and see the country divided along left-right ideological lines.
Maybe that is exactly what Ireland needs. Except for one thing: the almost certain likelihood is that the con-joining of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil would herald a lengthy period of conservative, right-wing government here which might – and which indeed likely will, if we let it happen – run for as long as ten, fifteen or even twenty years.
In the immediate future we could forget about Repealing the 8th. We would also be faced with complete stasis on one of the great scandals of modern Irish life: the control exerted by religious vested interests over Irish schools, an issue on which neither of the dominant political parties will take any risks whatsoever. We could also look forward to a wave of privatisation; the ongoing, abysmal treatment of refugees; further cuts in social welfare – and so on.
The prospect of waiting for ten or fifteen years to repeal the 8th Amendment is an appalling one. Nor do I want to see the electorate playing into the hands of the religious vested interests who control our schools.
My gut tells me that the only potentially viable alternative is still a centre-left government along the lines of the current administration. To make this possible, Labour needs a big swing in the final week of campaigning. Given the way the election has gone so far, this may seem like clutching at straws. But that, I suspect, is our only chance of avoiding the inauguration of a thoroughly died-in-the-wool conservative government here that might last decades.
If Labour were to gain enough support to be part of a coalition – whether with Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil – then we would see the 8th Amendment being repealed. We would also see serious progress being made to challenge the churches – and the Catholic church in particular – on their control of schools. We would likely see Ireland move to a new, saner and more liberal regime in relation to drugs. And we could also anticipate more of the same, in terms of Labour preventing the worst ravages where reductions in social welfare and the like are planned.
Of course this agenda falls far short of the Ireland that radicals, socialists and liberals want to usher in. I can understand the desire to wash away all of the demeaning compromises of the past hundred years – and the decade since the crash in particular. But the last thing we really need is fifteen years of conservative entrenchment. The Marriage Equality Referendum provided a magnificent, joyously affirmative moment in the lifetime of the current Dáil. It was the culmination of many years of assiduous work on the part of those who were – and many of whom still are – determined to liberalise Ireland’s laws on matters of personal morality.
Like many Irish people right now, my heart might yearn for a bonfire of the vanities, but my head says that it is far preferable to elect a government that will continue that process of liberalisation. Over the next five years, I want to see deeply entrenched religious vested interests being routed at every opportunity. I want to repeal the 8th Amendment. I want to see cannabis – at least – being legalised. I want to see refugees and immigrants being treated with open-ness and generosity. A push further to the left may well be sustainable further down the line. But in the meantime, let’s have the progress that I suspect Labour alone can deliver, rather than the demoralisation and frustration that a right wing coalition will inevitably entail both in the short, and more alarmingly in the long, term.
Finally, check your list of candidates thoroughly – and use every twist that you can to maximise the value of your vote. The least we can aspire to is giving the ‘tallymen’ a headache...