May 2007

Election 2007: A crash course in Irish politics

Election 2007

So the election is tomorrow. I had intended writing more about the whole thing, but life got in the way. I had other things to do, and getting enthusiastic about this turgid mess of a campaign would have taken a lot of time and effort. But I tell you something; if politicians could run our public services with the same level of efficiency they erect campaign posters, I’d vote for all of them! Within moments of Bertie and The President signing the document dissolving the Dáil, every lamp-post in the nation became a temporary billboard with three or four awkwardly smiling mugshots on each. Suddenly it’s impossible to walk to the village without being stared-at by a half-dozen unlikeable buffoons demanding my vote.

But who are those buffoons? And what do they stand for? Well, after a bit of googling, a bit of manifesto-reading and a handful of encounters with my local candidates, I think I’m in a position to summarise the choice on offer to the Irish people this coming Thursday. And it’s a grim choice indeed. I should point out that — having lived overseas for most of my life — I have very little knowledge of recent Irish politics. This has drawbacks: I can’t, for example, place a manifesto commitment into an historical context… is it a U-Turn or a long-standing policy? All I know is that it’s what they claim to stand for now. But there are benefits to a fresh perspective too, and I take no political baggage or long-standing party loyalty to my analysis.

The Big Two

As with many multi-party democracies, there are two big parties that dominate the political landscape. They are Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Unlike most multi-party democracies though, these two parties don’t represent a neat right:left opposition. In fact, both occupy almost identical centre-right positions on economic and social policy issues. The real difference is history.

The birth of the Irish Republic was no simple affair. It was complicated, it was messy, it was violent and it took decades to happen. But there’s one date to which you can anchor the narrative… Easter 1916. It was then that The Proclamation of The Republic was read from the steps of the General Post Office on O’Connell Street. The Irish people had attempted to gain independence on many previous occasions, but Easter 1916 signifies the start of the final attempt. By 1920 Britain had been dealing with an ever-escalating insurgency for four long years, and decided to cut their losses. In early 1921 the Irish Free State was born.

But the story didn’t end there. The movement that coordinated the rebellion split into two factions. And the Irish Civil War began. The political parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, are the modern remnants of those two revolutionary groups. But their reasons for opposing one another are long gone. They haven’t had a genuine ideological difference since Fianna Fáil dropped their commitment to a united Ireland (the Good Friday Agreement — and subsequent referendum — saw that commitment removed from the Irish constitution). They’re like feuding families who’ve long since forgotten the source of the original dispute and now spend their time inventing new reasons to hate each other.

Let me give you an example… one of the “burning issues” of this campaign has been law and order. The official crime figures are down, but people report feeling more vulnerable to crime than ever before (note: there are very simple psychological reasons for this, but explaining to people why some of their fears may be unfounded never won votes, right?) As a result, both main parties have been talking tough. And that tends to translate to “putting more police on the streets”. Now, one of Fine Gael‘s Big Ideas is “2,000 more police on the streets”. The line is on half their posters and leaflets and is a mantra constantly being repeated in the mass-media. So during a televised debate between Enda Kenny (leader of Fine Gael) and Bertie Ahern (leader of Fianna Fáil and current Taoiseach), Bertie pressed the Fine Gael leader on the issue. Given that there were already almost a thousand new police in training, was Fine Gael promising an extra 2,000 on top of that? Or were those trainees already included in the number?

Fair enough. Fair question. And it turns out that the answer is that “the 2,000 more” does include current trainees. No big deal really, but Enda fluffed it a bit and didn’t give a straight answer. So the two leaders of the main parties — the two men seeking to become the next leader of the country — then spent ten minutes arguing the point ferociously and talking over one another. And since then I’ve seen three separate current affairs programmes become completely bogged down on this issue.

And that there. Right there. Whether or not Fine Gael are providing extra funding for one or two thousand police in their budget. That’s what they’ve decided to argue about. I accept that there are many who don’t view sustainability or climate change or peak oil as The Big Issues I believe them to be. But I think we can all agree that whether or not Fine Gael are providing extra funding for one or two thousand police in their budget, can’t possibly be one of the most significant issues facing our nation as we set out to choose our government for the next five years. It just can’t.

Both parties offer broadly centre-right economic policies and are socially conservative. Fine Gael have an image of being slightly more socially liberal, but in reality you couldn’t slide a cigarette-paper between them. They both set their moral compasses by the Catholic Church and rarely — if ever — take a stance that might be seen to be in opposition to it. This fact alone should focus the mind of any genuine social liberal. Abortion and gay rights are just two areas where this conservative religious tendency has had a major impact on policy.

They both take identical prohibitionist positions on drug policy; believing that criminal gangs are the best people to be producing and distributing often dangerous and addictive substances. And they’re both very serious about enforcing that prohibitionist policy; criminalising addicts in need of help while simultaneously maximising both the harm caused by the drugs and the profit being made by those selling them. Both main parties appear to honestly believe that filling our jails with pot-heads is a good idea.

Economically, as I mentioned, they’re both centre-right. Back in the early 90s Ireland’s economy began to flourish. A conducive international environment coupled with significant inward investment from the EU allowed the government to begin a period of market liberalisation and reap the inevitable short-term benefits. Privatisation, low corporate tax rates and a willingness to sell anything that wasn’t nailed down led to The Celtic Tiger… a period of extraordinary economic growth. The current government; in fact Bertie himself, has pretty much claimed responsibility for this. But in truth, there’s no real difference between the economic policies of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. They might want to spend an additional 2% of GDP on this rather than that, and perhaps one wants to reduce taxation for first-time house-buyers while the other wants to increase the pension slightly. But essentially they both sing from the same hymn sheet…

“Economic growth is a good thing. It is desirable beyond pretty much all other things and we need to structure our society to this end”. This means the privatisation of state-owned assets: both parties believe that public transport should be sold to private investors and competition introduced. I have news for them both… nobody wants to compete for the Rathcoole bus route. There’s sod-all profit in it. I want a public transport system run for the benefit of the public, not the shareholders. Both main parties have as much as admitted that’s beyond their capabilities.

It’s a little indecent to watch the eagerness with which both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael prostrate themselves before the altar of Big Business. Indeed, The Market is the one institution they revere above The Church. I’m pretty certain if pro-Choice activists could just work out some way of making abortion profitable

But then again, I knew it was all over for this election when I saw Trevor Sargent — leader of The Irish Green Party — herald his party as “truly business-friendly”. It seems economic growth is king, whatever your political hue. Which brings us neatly to:

The Other Four

This — theoretically at least — is where Irish politics starts to get interesting. Although Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are the big two; barring a miracle, neither of them will get enough of the vote to command an overall majority. Right now Fianna Fáil look certain to be the largest single party, with perhaps as much as 40% of the seats. Fine Gael have been hovering at just below the 30% mark.

The next Dáil will feature TDs from a number of smaller parties, as well as a handful of independents. Of the smaller parties, the ones that should gain enough support to play a part in the post-election deal-making are:

Labour. Currently around 10% in the polls. The Irish Labour Party aren’t quite as far from their socialist roots as Tony Blair’s New Labour, but they’re pretty damn close. Led by the jovial, though somewhat blustering, Pat Rabbitte they have tied their colours fairly closely to the Fine Gael mast. So when the privatisation of Aer Lingus was discussed on a political TV show, the Labour TD could only object to “the manner” in which it was being done and seemed to have no objection to the principle of our transportation infrastructure being run according to the dictates of the free-market.

Indeed, if you look at Labour‘s 5 Commitments for Change, you’ll notice that three of them are just calls for “more” of something we’ve already got… hospital beds, police and people buying homes. Clearly Labour believe that Ireland is pretty much fine; it just needs ‘a bit more of the same’. Certainly they don’t have any radical proposals that would warrant more than two paragraphs of anyone’s time.

Sinn Féin. Currently around 8% in the polls. The dark horse of Irish politics. For years the party was synonymous with bombs and hunger-strikes. It had a leftist slant, but was essentially a single-issue Republican pressure group. And whether or not you like their policies, it’s a credit to Sinn Féin that they are being taken seriously as a multi-issue party in this election. Indeed, as the issue of “The North” begins — hopefully — to fade into history, Sinn Féin are likely to be taken more seriously in the Republic. Most Irish people have strong opinions about Northern Ireland, but it hasn’t traditionally been a major influence on voting patterns. So long as Sinn Féin remained first and foremost “the political wing of the provisional IRA”, they were never likely to gain significant electoral ground south of the border.

What has impressed people, however, is the way in which Sinn Féin has successfully (fingers crossed) made the transition away from armed struggle and brought almost the entire Republican movement with them. They demonstrated that they’re capable of strength of purpose but also of understanding when a new direction is required. And people admire Gerry Adams for that. Of course, despite being president of the party, Adams can’t stand for election here in the Republic what with being Deputy First Minister in The North. Nonetheless his face is on every second Sinn Féin election poster. He’s the one “character” in this election who can challenge Bertie in both face-recognition and political charisma.

Unfortunately Sinn Féin‘s manifesto is a bit of a mish-mash. On the one hand they call for massive expansion of public transport, but on the other they seek to paint themselves as car-friendly (build more roads, reduce motoring costs, etc.) They talk about environmental responsibility and sustainability but also seek to abolish the bin tax (any erosion of the idea that individuals should bear responsibility for the waste they generate would be a disaster in my view). All the same, they are offering a genuine alternative to the centre-right corporatists and I applaud them for it. They are committed to retaining public ownership of those few assets we’ve still got left, and I tip my hat to this line from their manifesto (4MB PDF file)… “[We shall] Prohibit use of Irish airports, airspace, seaports, or territorial waters for preparation for war or other armed conflict by foreign powers or to facilitate any aspect of illegal acts such as the US Government’s programme of ‘extraordinary rendition’.”

The Greens. Currently around 6% in the polls. There’s no question that the Irish Green Party are compromised by the need to appear unwilling to rock the boat. If you are committed to a genuinely sustainable society, then you must accept an end to economic growth. Acknowledgement of this fact is still heresy in the mainstream, however, and consequently the Greens talk themselves up as a business-friendly party who offer a route to environmental protection that is sensitive to the needs of profit and industry.

Nonetheless, for anyone who genuinely feels that climate change and sustainability are Big Issues that require immediate action, The Greens are the only game in town. They would implement policies to reduce Irish carbon emissions by 3% annually. They talk about a “distributed energy grid” incorporating numerous small-scale renewable sources, and have a manifesto promise to “set a target for 5% of national acreage to be organically converted by 2012” (seems low to me, but it’s 5% more than anyone else promises). They’re also very very quiet on the issue of drug policy, but I’m extremely happy to see it gets listed under “Health” rather than “Crime” in their manifesto. And I’m also glad to see a commitment to “remove all gender specific terms from current legislation and regulations governing the granting of marriages to allow same-sex couples enjoy the rights and responsibilities of civil marriage”.

Along with Sinn Féin, the Greens are positioned significantly to the left of the mainstream in Irish politics. In addition, they are by far the most socially liberal of the six big parties.

Progressive Democrats (the PDs). Currently around 3% in the polls. This is the smallest of the Big Six, but has punched above its weight for the past decade as coalition partners of Fianna Fáil, providing them with enough seats to form a majority government. They have two main campaign slogans. Firstly; “Left-Wing Government? NO THANKS!” and secondly “Don’t Throw it All Away”.

They are economically on the far right, essentially free-market corporatists who split from the mainstream of Irish politics in the 1980s because nobody was right wing enough for them. They see themselves as an essential factor in driving recent economic policy and the “Don’t Throw It All Away” line is clearly aimed at those who have benefited materially from the economic anarchy of the past ten years and would like to see it continue.

Because of the Single Transferable Vote system, it’s possible to vote for more than one candidate on election day, listing them in order of preference. Every candidate wants to be Number One on your ballot, but they can reveal a lot when asked who they recommend for second and third preference. When Gerry Adams was asked the question, he replied that he obviously wanted everyone to vote Sinn Féin Number One, and that he honestly didn’t mind who got the voter’s second preference. But then he added; “of course, no thinking person would ever vote for the PDs”.

Although Michael McDowell is the leader of the PDs, it’s Mary Harney that most people associate with the party. She’s been minister for health for the past few years and there are major differences in opinion as to her performance. Indeed, according to the media, health is possibly the single biggest issue for the electorate with Enda Kenny of Fine Gael going so far as to instruct voters to treat the election as “a referendum on the health service” (I do so hate it when politicians tell me what issues I should be voting on). Both the nurses and the medical consultants are involved in industrial disputes with the Health Service Executive (the public body through which the health service is managed) and half the country sees Mary Harney as a crusader pushing through vital but unpopular reforms, while the other half sees her as a free-market zealot more concerned with “extracting value” than with providing a service that actually works.

The Issues

Health. It tops every opinion poll when people are surveyed about the issues they’ll be voting on this year. There’s a perception that the health service has actually got worse despite the unprecedented prosperity of the times. We hear news stories of full hospitals and people spending days on trolleys until beds became free. Stories of people showing up injured at A&E and having to wait hours to see a doctor. And stories of MRSI and other hospital super-bugs claiming lives. Meanwhile the nurses are on strike (they’re on a work-to-rule action, combined with targeted stoppages) and the medical consultants organisation is refusing to cooperate with the government on new contract negotiations meaning that no new consultants can be hired by the state.

It seems to be one crisis after another, and while I have to say that my own experience of the Irish health system has been very positive, there’s nonetheless a lot of dissatisfaction about. Definitely an issue working against the present government, despite the opposition not offering any actual solutions.

The Economy & Taxation. This is the big one for the current government. Irish people — on average — have seen a significant rise in living standards over the past ten years. It’s debatable as to how much of that is due to Fianna Fáil / Progressive Democrat management and how much is due to a confluence of factors beyond their control. But that doesn’t matter. If the economy appears strong and taxes are relatively low, there’s a tendency for people to avoid voting for change. Obviously it’s just one tendency and it can be outweighed by other factors. All the same it’s a powerful one and so long as the housing bubble doesn’t burst over the next 48 hours, it’ll definitely work in the government’s favour.

Law & Order / Crime / Justice. This encompasses two separate but connected issues. Firstly there’s a debate going on in Ireland right now regarding substantial reform of the police service (An Garda Síochána). There’s a growing view that the organisation is too parochial… “too much of a boy’s club”… as well as more sinister allegations of corruption. All of the parties talk about introducing “much needed reform” but stop short of suggesting details, lest they upset anyone.

Secondly, there’s the ever-present spectre of crime that inhabits far more of our collective psyche than the statistics suggest it warrants. But as alluded to earlier, there are understandable psychological reasons for this. The solution, of course, would be to instigate a radical restructuring of society aimed at dismantling consumer culture. Needless to say, that’s not a phrase I encountered in any of the manifestos. Instead we have a “more of the same” approach from all of the major parties with the occasional soundbite about tackling the causes of crime in amongst the tough rhetoric. In truth, none of them have anything original to say on the subject. So just like with health and the economy, this may be an issue the Irish consider important but we’re fooling ourselves if we think we’re being offered a genuine choice on it.

The Environment / Sustainability. Don’t even get me started. There should be a legal obligation, that every time a political candidate or corporate spokesperson uses the word “sustainable”, a big neon sign stating “I am a liar” flashes above their head. They. Just. Don’t. Get. It. “Sustainable” isn’t just a buzzword to bandy about; tagging it onto whatever you’re in favour of (growth, economic development, competitiveness strategy, whatever) in the hope that it’ll seem more wholesome to bothersome hippies. It actually means something.

So when all of the parties aside from the Greens promise “sustainable growth and economic development”, you realise that none of them actually get it. They don’t realise the importance of dealing with the fact that we live in an absurdly unsustainable society and this presents problems that require immediate action. The Greens at least seem to grasp the problem but fall short of proposing the sort of radical solutions required for fear of scaring away voters.

Immigration, Multi-Culturalism and Race. I bring these up simply to point out that they are not major electoral issues in 2007. Ireland’s booming economy has seen the demand for labour skyrocket and there’s been a massive influx of East Europeans to meet that demand. So far this has been a rather smooth process. Infrastructure planning has struggled to keep up with the population rise, but that’s been the worst of it. Any significant economic slowdown could change all that however. How long do you spend at the unemployment office before the Polish worker stops “fulfilling a need” and begins “stealing your job”? Sadly I believe this will be a far bigger issue in 2012 than it is this time around, and I don’t believe that whoever gets into power this week will be handling it very well.

Fingers crossed I’m proven wrong on this one.

Foreign Policy. I took an active interest in both British and American politics when I lived in those countries and they differ significantly from Irish politics in one way in particular. They both have foreign policies worthy of interest (and usually condemnation). In general Ireland doesn’t. We’re officially neutral, and are not a member of any military organisations such as NATO. We even have all manner of complicated get-out clauses with regards to any future European fighting force. That said, Ireland sends a disproportionate (to population) number of soldiers on United Nations peace-keeping operations. Historically we have been very pro-UN, pro-EU, indeed in favour of multilateralism in general.

On the other hand, Ireland is very clearly part of “The West” and we provide facilities for the United States military to refuel and restock. We don’t make the same offer to anyone else who might fancy using us as an aircraft carrier, so while we may not be a member of NATO there’s an obvious “nod and a wink” thing going on. The Greens and Sinn Féin want to do something about that. The others are happy to introduce “grey areas” into our neutrality. Ultimately though, foreign policy isn’t a big electoral issue.

The “personalities”

There aren’t many. People talk nostalgically about a time when Irish politics was full of interesting characters. Politicians with Great Ideals but without the resources — or often the competence — to follow through on them. These days we’ve got a bunch of empty suits who view politics as a lucrative career rather than a stint in public service. People without a Great Ideal between them and whose competence is largely irrelevant as they spend their time working out the best way to do nothing, at great expense.

Nonetheless, a handful do stand out. Towering above them all is Bertie of course. Leader of the nation for the past ten years, Bertie has managed to project an image that amounts to a bizarre blend of “international statesman” and “bloke on the street”. Despite Ireland’s limited unilateral foreign policy, we play a very active role in the EU. Bertie used Ireland’s presidency of that organisation to host a bunch of high-profile conferences which saw him rub shoulders with just about every major world leader you care to mention, and look at ease doing so. Then there’s also his genuinely praiseworthy contribution to the Northern Ireland peace process. I believe that when the history of The Troubles is finally written, Gerry Adams will emerge as the man who played the most crucial role (simply because it was thrust upon him to make the single largest concession, and to convince his followers that it needed to be made). But Bertie will be more than just a footnote. If the government of the Republic hadn’t struck exactly the right note throughout the process, it would have been scuppered.

(And credit where it’s due, the same can be said of Tony Blair. Monkeys and typewriters and what have you).

And yet Bertie Ahern appears to retain his home-spun charm. For all his photo-ops with Clinton and Bush and Blair and Koizumi and Annan, he can still press the flesh with his constituents and give the impression of being just another one of the lads. One of us. His face appears on more election posters than any other, while every Fianna Fáil candidate has the party slogan emblazoned across their ads… “Bertie’s Team”. He’s the dominating personality in modern Irish politics and — paradoxically — he’ll almost certainly be the primary factor in how Fianna Fáil fare in the election. Whatever the outcome.

In marked contrast, there’s Enda Kenny. Let’s just say that if neither were politicians, you’d definitely gravitate towards Bertie at a party and hope you didn’t get stuck with that Enda Kenny bloke who keeps wanting to talk about mortgages. The Fine Gael leader seems to personify The Bureaucrat. He’s serious and sober — and would insist, quite rightly, that politics is a serious and sober business. But he gives the impression that he might just enjoy that about it, rather than see it as a necessary evil. So although he seems to be a competent guy (you’d have no trouble trusting him to take care of your dog while you were on holiday for instance), he doesn’t have the ability to connect with people through the media that can make or break a politician.

There’s an old saw about success being 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. The difference between Bertie and Enda Kenny isn’t that they’re proposing anything different; simply that Bertie manages to focus your attention on the 1% while Kenny keeps emphasising the other 99.

I don’t know if that image quite works, but it’s close enough.

I also think Enda Kenny has suffered significantly from “the Blair factor”. A few days ago Bertie gave a speech to the combined Houses of Parliament in the UK. The first time an Irish leader has done so. The occasion was the return to power-sharing in Northern Ireland and it proved to be yet another great photo-op for Bertie. The statesman with a twinkle in his eye. Everyone in Ireland saw the news footage of his historic speech in Westminster. The news item included mention that Enda Kenny was a guest at the occasion, and the cameras deftly picked him out sitting a few rows back. Where Bertie looked completely at ease while commanding the attention of all present, Kenny looked strangely out of place. Like a member of the press corps who’d much rather be somewhere else.

And of course, as already mentioned, there’s also Gerry Adams. Sinn Féin are an all-Ireland political party with Gerry Adams as president of that party. So even though legally — if not, in his eyes at least, rightfully — he’s a resident and elected politician in a separate nation, Adams has nonetheless played a significant role in the Sinn Féin campaign here in the Republic. He’s admired by a hell of a lot of people (many of them grudgingly, but that’s sometimes the best kind of admiration), and although his party is significantly to the left of the mainstream in Ireland, and although The North hasn’t traditionally played a significant role in Republic politics, the Gerry Adams factor will doubtlessly boost the Sinn Féin vote.

Coalition shenanigans… The Next Irish Government

So them’s the parties… either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael (both centre-right conservative) will form the core of the next government. The question is all about which of them can attract coalition partners to give them an overall majority.

Right now we have a Fianna Fáil / PD government. The polls suggest that Fianna Fáil will lose enough seats to rule out forming a coalition with the PDs. The main opposition is an “Alliance for Change” featuring Fine Gael and Labour. Should they secure an overall majority between them, then they’ll form the next government with Enda Kenny as Taoiseach.

However, the polls also suggest that it won’t be quite that simple either. Right now neither of the centre blocs are attracting enough support to gain an overall majority. And that would make things very interesting indeed. There’s talk of a rainbow coalition; Fine Gael, Labour and The Greens. Meanwhile Bertie hasn’t ruled out an alliance with Sinn Féin (despite recent history, still a very controversial idea). This would certainly exclude the PDs from government and — I suspect — see them die out as a political force. On the other hand, it has been mooted that Labour might switch to the other side of the fence in a bid to prevent Sinn Féin becoming part of the government. This probably wouldn’t work if both parties maintain their current leadership (Bertie and Pat don’t like one another) so the question becomes whether or not Bertie’s team might ditch Bertie at the last minute in order to do a deal with Labour and prevent Sinn Féin having an influence on policy.

If either of the centre-right blocs gain support enough for an overall majority then nothing much will change. But the tantalising prospect of either Sinn Féin or The Greens holding the balance of power and tempering the inevitable centre-right corporatist government with something marginally less insane, is just enough to get me out to the polling booth tomorrow. My vote? 1- The Greens. 2- Sinn Féin. 3- The Workers Party (traditional unreconstructed socialists… they’ll get a tiny percentage of the vote, but I think there’s nothing wrong at all with having one or two old-style fire’n’brimstone lefties in the Dáil. They’re good at dissent.)

As for you? If you’ve got the vote and don’t plan on using it then I urge you to at least show up and spoil your ballot. A high turnout with a high spoilt-ballot count is a much better indication of general political dissatisfaction than a low turnout. And if you’re still undecided at this late stage, here’s my reluctant pitch for the Green vote. It’s a protest vote. It’s not saying that you believe the Green Party are the best people to run the country. Or that they have all the answers to global warming and peak oil and the death of our oceans. Instead your vote is saying that you want those issues addressed. Not talked about. Not stuck away in some underfunded minor department. But placed right at the centre of our agenda and informing policy in all areas.

Posted in: Opinion