- 27 Nov 14
These are turbulent times, as Sinn Fein and socialist Independents find themselves in the unprecedented situation of topping the opinion polls. However you view this, pause to be thankful that there is no hard-Right movement of significance in Ireland, and no apparent appetite for one...
Strange days indeed. The bonhomie of Christmas may be just around the corner, but there has seldom been such a venomous atmosphere in Irish politics.
The fiasco of Irish Water gets worse by the day. I wrote about it a fornight ago in Hot Press. It seemed to me then, that the widespread anger that has gripped the country was not really about whether or not people should have to pay for water, but rather about the sickening feeling that, in a time of national penury, the administrative class was setting off on another jolly at the people’s expense – and that our money was being flung around like confetti at a celebrity wedding. The worst of it was that this had been rubber-stamped in the most stupid and unthinking way by the Government.
It should have been obvious. As a result of the banking crisis, Ireland has been saddled with enormous, long-term debts. Ordinary citizens are being forced to pick up the tab for these, in a way that is grossly unjust. We all know this. And yet, it emerged that, in the formation of Irish Water, a vast amount of our money was being poured down the toilet in a combination of excessive fees to consultants, grossly inflated salaries to staff and, worst of all, bonuses to people for being shit at their jobs.
How was this allowed to happen? Surely, the role of Government – and of the public servants in the Department of the Environment – is to get the best possible deal for the people. If Irish Water had been approached on the basis that it was an opportunity to get rid of indulgent excesses in the local government system and to cut the cost of getting water into our taps, then it’d be impossible to argue against it. Instead, the formation of the new national water authority became symptomatic of a much more widespread culture, in which the people are treated like doormats by the State. Money was spent, as in the days of the Celtic Tiger, as if it were going out of fashion – while at the same time essential services were being cut and people were being hit with all sorts of additional stealth taxes.
Now, in a further twist that will again infuriate members of the public, it has emerged that Bord Gais underestimated the cost of installing water meters by an astonishing €107 million. In a report on RTÉ Radio One’s This Week programme, it was revealed that within a matter of eight weeks, the estimate of the cost of installing meters went up from €431 million to €539 million – representing an astonishing 25% increase on the amount projected by the enormously expensive experts that had been brought in to advise on the issue. The full implications of this revelation have yet to be teased out at the time of going to press, but it looks bad. Of this much we can be sure: no one is going to emerge from this smelling of roses...
No wonder the government is reeling. Support for the coalition parties has collapsed. In the latest Red C poll in the Sunday Business Post, Fine Gael are at their lowest level in years at 22%. Labour are becalmed at a miserable 8%. Meanwhile, the travails of the coalition notwithstanding, Fianna Fáil are stuck on 18%. Having usurped the latter's place in the cockpit, Sinn Féin are slugging it out with Enda Kenny's crew at 22%. But even they have been far outstripped by the rise of the independents, a category that includes members of the Socialist Party like Paul Murphy and Ruth Coppinger, as well as People Before Profit and others in the anti-austerity alliance.
The scenario is a fascinating one. Perhaps we have finally come to the long-predicted moment when Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will be forced to merge, in order to create a centre-right party that has a hope of holding its own in the next general election. Perhaps not. Might the much talked about new party of the right emerge? Certainly ex-Fine Gael minister Lucinda Creighton’s attempt to get the so called Reform Alliance off the ground looks like a beaten docket. Who wants a new party that would propound hopelessly outmoded, reactionary views on social issues? A tiny rump and no more. If he can put an organisation together, Shane Ross represents a far more viable libertarian right alternative. But would his sidekicks have a hope of matching the Sinn Féin apparatchicks in organisational terms?
There are risks in the current instability. In particular, there are genuine reasons to be wary of a situation where a rag-bag of independents with hugely diverse views might hold the balance of power. But we should also recognise just how fortunate we are, with the way in which the current line-up in Irish politics has shaped itself.
In the UK, over the past twelve months, we have witnessed the inexorable rise of UKIP, under the leadership of the grotesque Nigel Farage. Racism and fascism have been gaining currency too in France and elsewhere in mainland Europe.
So far, Ireland has avoided this kind of drift into downright brutishness. There have been racist incidents, like the recent attacks on members of the Roma Community in Waterford. And there is undoubtedly an underbelly of outright racism in Irish society. But so far it has gained no political currency. Whatever you think of its chequered history, Sinn Féin is resolutely egalitarian in its policies. So are most of the elected independents.
The truth is that there is little or no likelihood of any support emerging for a UKIP style party in this country in the foreseeable future.
In channeling the contemporary anger of citizens in a direction that is free of the paranoia and xenophobia of the emerging fascist parties of Europe, Sinn Féin and the socialist independents have done us all a favour. We don’t want racism in Ireland. And we don’t need it.
There is still much to be done before we can afford to start patting ourselves on the back. As President Michael D. Higgins hinted, in a speech during his recent African visit, the system of direct provision, into which asylum seekers are dumped when they arrive here, is completely inadequate, immoral and wrong. If we really want to be able to hold our heads high as a people then this must be changed.
But in the meantime, as Christmas approaches, let us celebrate the diversity of the new Ireland and the fact that people of all races, colours and creeds feel more welcome here than ever before. It is, as they say, a start. Happy new year...