tag: Sinn Féin

Nov 2012

An alternative plan

It has become a mantra of the mainstream here in Ireland… “it’s all very well to criticise”, they say, “but I don’t hear you proposing an alternative plan”.

You hear it trotted out regularly by government politicians in the news and on current affairs programmes. Usually in response to a challenge from one of the small cohort of usual suspects from the Irish Left. It goes like this:

Clare Daly

Socialist TD, Clare Daly:
A saner voice than most, but still not sane enough

Perhaps in a Dáil (parliamentary) question, or maybe from behind the desk on the Vincent Browne show, Joe Higgins or Clare Daly or someone from Sinn Féin* will remind a minister of the basic injustice of the bank guarantee strangling this country.

The minister will then respond thus: he or she will acknowledge that mistakes have been made. There will be a rueful reminder of the complete mess they’ve inherited from the last lot. The phrase “to an extent our hands are tied with regards to…” will be used. We will be reminded that nobody wants to be in the current situation and that our politicians certainly don’t want to make the tough decisions they’re being forced to make. But those tough decisions do have to be made for the good of the country. And remember, to an extent our hands are tied…

The minister will then finish with the well worn coup de grâce. “Well”, he or she will announce with feigned gravitas, “it’s all very well to criticise, but I don’t hear you proposing an alternative plan”.

And with that, the debate in the media is won. That same discussion has been happening on our screens for the past two years, and those on The Left don’t appear to understand that every time it happens, they lose the argument yet again. And losing the same argument over and over, every night on TV for two years, makes you look like a bad bet when it comes to choosing who to run the country.

Now, some of you might be wondering why “I don’t hear you proposing an alternative plan” wins the argument. Why don’t The Left just propose an alternative plan then? After all, if they can’t do that, then they probably don’t merit your vote. Except it’s not quite that simple. See the challenge is not simply to propose an alternative plan, it’s to propose an alternative plan that can be coherently communicated to a mass audience in approximately two minutes. As Chomsky pointed out (and whatever you think of Chomsky, he’s right about this) complex or radical ideas can almost never be coherently explained to a mass audience in a soundbite. Especially if those ideas challenge pre-existing beliefs about the world.

That’s one theory why The Left is losing the media debate right now – losing the debate despite a growing groundswell of discontent with the government. Basically they do possess an alternative plan, but because it involves massive structural changes to the way Irish society works, it can’t be conveyed quickly without sounding wild or risky or just plain mad (of course, it’s only our familiarity with current social structures that obscures the wild, risky madness they represent). So those on The Left shy away from their alternative and instead talk about burning the bondholders, defaulting on the bank debt, revoking the promissory notes, overturning the bank guarantee. Repetition has hollowed out those phrases… they’ve become like marketing slogans for a product you’ll never afford. The other side has their own set of course. They talk about a return to growth, of fiscal responsibility and of being on-track to meet our targets. And they look wistfully into the middle distance and speak in hushed tones of the glorious day when we proudly rejoin the bond markets.

My other theory is less charitable to The Left. The reason they don’t discuss radical alternatives in the media is not because they’re worried about appearing incoherent when forced to shoehorn their plan into soundbite form. It’s because they don’t actually have a radical alternative. See, compared with a hundred years ago, general political discourse has today been narrowed to a tiny segment of the spectrum. The Irish Labour Party… the party of James Connolly and Jim Larkin… is now entirely wedded to the notion of free market capitalism. And they are the “centre left” member of the coalition government. But there’s a sense that even those who critique the government from further left are trapped in that free market capitalist paradigm.

They talk about ending the “casino capitalism” that has helped plunge this country into debt. But they don’t talk about ending “capitalism”. Remove the casino but leave the rest of the edifice standing. It’s reform they want… they don’t want to replace the system with a radical alternative, they just want to tinker with the way it’s running.

All of which makes it impossible for them to be coherent. By aligning themselves with the forces of market capitalism they are forced to accept the internal logic of the markets demanding Ireland sell its future.

Personally, I do have an alternative plan. Unfortunately though, when I describe the plan it sounds risky, borderline crazy and downright impossible to achieve. I don’t believe it’s any of those things, but decades of free-market indoctrination makes it seem that way from a mainstream perspective.

My plan involves radical reform of the political structures (starting with freeing TDs from party whips and strengthening local government), a wave of nationalisations, the end of a free market in non-renewable resources, the removal of the profit motive from essential industries and services, a radical localisation of those essential industries and services, the introduction of a Universal Living Income coupled with significant tax increases for those who earn more than three times that amount, a rise in corporation tax to bring us close to the European average, the implementation of secondary regional currencies which would exist alongside the euro, the immediate repudiation by the sovereign of all private debt transferred to it, a complete structural reform of NAMA, investment in local infrastructure projects and a far-reaching redefinition of “illegal activity” within the financial and political sectors. I would also radically reform Ireland’s social policies in a number of areas (drug law, marriage equality, etc.) and I’d ensure that Ireland unilaterally embarked on a journey towards a decarbonised and sustainable future… hopeful that others might follow our example.

As I say… risky, borderline crazy and downright impossible to achieve. Accurate descriptions to those living in a society that has lost its ability to re-imagine itself and therefore abandoned all attempts to do so. Instead we blunder down exactly the same path we’ve been on for the past few decades; a path destined to lead us to disaster. Me? I’d rather take a risk on a different path, even if we don’t have an accurate map of where it might lead. Especially when we know the one we’re on ends with a plunge into the abyss.

* On the subject of the financial crisis – and is there any other subject right now in Ireland? – Sinn Féin qualify as part of The Left.

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May 2012


Synonyms for austerity: harshness, strictness, asceticism, rigour (source: dictionary.com).

CapitalismA little over three weeks from now the people of Ireland will vote in a referendum. At stake is Irish participation in the European Fiscal Compact, a pan-European treaty that attempts to lay down strict budgetary rules for those nations who sign up. The ‘Yes’ campaign is referring to it as “The Stability Treaty”. The ‘No’ campaign calls it the “Austerity Treaty”. While it’s true that I am ideologically opposed to the treaty, I contend that my position is grounded in reality. That is; you can demonstrate – using “facts” and everything* – that the treaty will result in austerity for Ireland, while its characterisation as a “stability” treaty is extremely dubious to say the least.

Incidentally, does anyone remember the Lisbon Treaty? At the second time of asking, we endorsed it in October 2009. The ‘Yes’ camp – the very same people urging ‘Yes’ later this month remember – characterised it as the “Jobs Treaty”. Hmmm, we’ve not had an apology from them on that one yet. But I guess we shouldn’t expect politicians to apologise for completely misleading the citizenry and promising things they’re unable to deliver. Indeed, most of them seem to think that’s actually part of their job description.

What I find really remarkable about modern politicians is their ability to maintain such a breath-taking lack of self-awareness despite living their lives in a media spotlight. They never admit to mistakes; presumably believing they never make any. In other words, believing they are fundamentally better than the rest of us (because god knows we all make mistakes). Moreover, politicians appear so completely unaware of their own limitations as to give the impression that they don’t feel they have any. The vast majority of us over-estimate our own abilities… it’s part of being human… but politicians, whether they are the Left or the Right, do so to such a degree it’s almost beyond parody. Personally I believe I’d do a better job running the country than the current lot we’ve got in the job. But – and it’s a crucial “but” – I don’t think I’d do a great job at it. Just a better one. And given the incredible importance of that job, I’d need to be a self-interested, power-hungry careerist to put myself forward for it unless I thought I could do a great job.

So either the people running the country are just a bunch of self-interested, power-hungry careerists; willing to place their own personal desires and ambitions above the collective good… or they are supremely unaware of their own limitations. Because, let’s face it, it’s hardly a secret that the job they’re doing ain’t that great.

But back to the Treaty

Yes indeed. The posters have started to go up. Far more ‘Yes’ posters than ‘No’ based on a trip into Dublin City today. But that’s to be expected given the financial muscle behind the ‘Yes’ campaign. All three major political parties support the treaty. No surprise there… any suggestion that the Labour Party might take a more nuanced position (especially given the position of the bulk of the Unions) were fanciful in the extreme. Labour donned the neoliberal uniform the moment they sold their principles to Fine Gael in return for a taste of power. Their protestations that they’ve managed to ameliorate some of the more savage cuts proposed by Fine Gael possess but the thinnest shred of truth.

Against the treaty stands Sinn Féin, the Unions (well, most of them) and the leftist parties. Oh, and Éamon Ó’Cuiv. Fair play to Éamon. He may well be the exception to my characterisation of mainstream politicians that proves the rule. And rumours abound that he’ll soon be expelled from Fianna Fáil for his stance. Remarkable really… you can run the country into the ground, you can endorse a Bank Guarantee that transfers massive private debts onto the shoulders of generations yet unborn, you can break a thousand promises to the electorate. All of these things are par for the course in modern politics – commendable even. But to stand by your principles? Apparently that’s grounds for expulsion.

Seriously, you can’t actually be cynical enough about politics any more. It has passed beyond that realm. All we are left with is disbelief, despair and contempt. And hopefully the stirrings of a genuine anger… though I see little enough of that right now in Ireland more’s the pity.

The latest polls seem to suggest the ‘Yes’ majority is being eroded slowly. Unfortunately it seems too slow at the moment to turn the tide come May 31st (though with a bit of luck the election results in France and Greece, along with the failure of the Dutch government to push through the policies of austerity, will inspire us here in Ireland). Personally I ascribe this ‘Yes’ majority to two factors… one: a shamelessly biased media (the Irish Times has been little short of disgraceful on this matter, and RTÉ not much better – once again, we should be thankful for Vincent Browne**… long may he continue to be a thorn in the side of the establishment); and two: the success of the scare-mongering tactics employed by the ‘Yes’ campaign. As I mentioned here before, the campaign was kicked off by a Fine Gael minister insisting that a ‘No’ vote would be “like a bomb going off in Dublin”. That’s the very definition of scare-mongering… comparing my ‘No’ vote to an act of terrorism; suggesting that when I place my ‘X’ in the ‘No’ box, I am metaphorically carrying out an act of extreme violence. Such undiluted nonsense from a government minister should be shameful, but these people know no shame.

On top of that we’ve had government spokespeople assuring us that a ‘No’ vote will “cut Ireland off from external funding”. It took those opposing the treaty over a week to finally wrest a statement from the “impartial” Referendum Commission that this was – in fact – a lie. Plain and simple. A lie. But the Commission’s declaration hasn’t had nearly the same media exposure as the lie it exposes.

We need Austerity

See, this is the weird thing. Europe – like the rest of western civilisation – actually needs to radically reduce its consumption. We have created an unsustainable society that we should be scaling back right now (because if we don’t do it, then resource depletion will do it for us pretty soon anyway… and chances are it’ll involve less suffering if we take matters into our own hands on this issue). But, to jump back to the synonyms which opened this post, we need the austerity of ‘rigour’. And what’s being foisted upon us is ‘harshness’. That’s how it is, no matter what the ‘Yes’ campaign might claim (and each time they claim otherwise, remember the same people also claimed Lisbon was the “Jobs Treaty”).

The policies being adopted by our government; the policies that will be enshrined in the Irish Constitution if we pass this dangerous treaty; the policies that Angela Merkel has announced are “non-negotiable” (can someone please tell me who the hell gave the German government the right to tell the rest of Europe what we may or may not negotiate?); these are policies that will be unnecessarily harsh on the vast majority of Europe’s citizens, precisely so that the financial institutions of Europe don’t need to adopt a rigorous approach to their affairs.

This treaty places the interests of European banks above the interests of European people (and those who say those interests are synonymous need to cop on to themselves). It imposes austerity without addressing sustainability. Europe needs a sustainable alternative. It needs a radical alternative. An alternative based on social justice (a radical proposal in itself in these days of neoliberal greed and casino capitalism)… an alternative based on human decency and human dignity. I believe that alternative can be found in a flight away from capitalism. I believe that we should be looking towards the ideas of Bertrand Russell, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Lucy Parsons, Gregory Bateson, Albert Einstein and so many others. People who realised that capitalist society has been shaped by the few, for the few. And that this has to change if we are to create a world worthy and capable of long-term survival.

A ‘No’ vote on May 31st won’t bring the words of those wise few to life. It won’t bring about a Golden Age of social progress. It carries risks and will certainly be met with a punitive reaction from the financial institutions that currently run Europe. A ‘No’ vote will not bring back the Celtic Tiger, because the Celtic Tiger is never coming back. But it will strike a blow against the forces of injustice and inequality. It will halt our own government’s headlong rush into the abyss. And it will demonstrate that – just like the French and the Greeks – we in Ireland are fed up taking orders from the very bankers who destroyed the global economy. Vote ‘No’.

* Michael Taft supplies some of those facts in this article on Politico.ie. You can find plenty more if you click around that site.

** Out of interest, could a non-Irish-resident reader click on this link and tell me whether it’s possible to watch the Vincent Browne show online from outside Ireland? You don’t need to watch a whole show (unless you really want to), just click one of the recent episodes and let me know if it is viewable… I occasionally want to link to a particular episode from this blog, but don’t know whether – like the BBC iPlayer – it’s inaccessible overseas.

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Oct 2011

(Who’d want to be) Head of the state we’re in

In a couple of days time, on Thursday October 27th, the citizens of Ireland will make their way back to the polling stations. This time around, however, we won’t vote for a new government (more’s the pity) but for a new Head of State. A new president.

The presidency of Ireland lasts for a term of seven years and can only be held for two terms. Traditionally a president is unopposed should they choose to serve the second term, and historically most presidents have taken that option, remaining in office for the full 14 years. Health permitting, that is… Ireland’s first president, Douglas Hyde, was unable to serve his second term as a result of ill health and the fourth president, Erskine Childers, died a year into his first term. Childers was succeeded by Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh who resigned after two years as a result of a series of clashes with the government of the day (it was the beginning of ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland and Ó Dálaigh was far more militantly republican than the government). Mary Robinson, of course, was offered the post of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights at the end of her first term and did not, as a result, take up the option of a second term. All of the others served the maximum 14 years. And our current president, Mary McAleese, has reached the end of her second term, so the post must once again be filled.

Irish Presidential flag

But does it really matter who holds the presidency? Despite being democratically elected, the position is more akin to that of – for example – the Queen of England than it is to that of the President of the United States. It’s a largely ceremonial role and one that offers little room for influencing national policy. Despite the strident claims of one candidate in particular, the president will not be able to prevent a further expansion of European control over Irish social and economic policy… no matter how often the candidate might appear on TV brandishing the Irish constitution like a sword. But more about the individuals in a bit.

For now, let me dig a little deeper into that phrase, “a largely ceremonial role”. Because “largely” does not mean “completely” and the president does have a tiny bit of real power as well as – potentially at least – a fair amount of cultural influence, and therefore indirectly, political influence. The “real” power comes from the fact that the president is required to sign any Bill passed by parliament before it becomes Law. And Article 26 of the Irish Constitution states that the President may – with the exception of national budgets and bills enacting the results of a referendum – refer any bill to the Supreme Court should they feel the Bill “is … repugnant to this Constitution or to any provision thereof.”

Now, while this power has been very rarely exercised, there is a school of thought which suggests that the various laws that led up to the ECB/IMF bailout (including the infamous and disastrous bank guarantee of September 2008) effectively undermined Irish sovereignty and could, therefore, have been interpreted as anti-constitutional. Whether or not the Supreme Court would have agreed with that interpretation is, of course, another thing entirely. But President McAleese could certainly have thrown a spanner in the works back in September 2008 by delaying the bank guarantee. This could have had a massive impact on our recent history (for better or for worse, we’ll obviously never know). That said, there’s another school of thought which suggests that the bank guarantee and subsequent bailout legislation were “Money bills” and were – as a result – immune from presidential referral. However, I believe there is enough room for interpretation on that question to have at least provoked a constitutional crisis should President McAleese have chosen to do so.

Let me stress; all of that is hypothetical. President McAleese has been a fine president and I’m not criticising her here. The social, political and economic landscape was radically different when she was elected 14 years ago and she was certainly not elected to be a political firebrand. Her ambassadorial / ceremonial role was implicit in her presidency and this almost certainly aided her quietly effective social campaigning on issues such as gender equality and sectarianism. As much as I personally would have liked her to do so; had she suddenly decided to attack government economic policy 12 years into her presidency, it would have been with a questionable mandate.

This time around, however, there is at least one candidate openly campaigning with a view to testing just how far a president can go to obstruct government policy. And while I do not – for reasons I will get on to soon – endorse that particular candidate, there’s little doubt that people have the option to cast their vote for a much more “active” president this time round (or not… there are several “won’t rock the boat” candidates in the running too). The Irish Presidency is an office with limited power, yes, but will the people vote for someone who promises to push those limits?

There is another sort of power inherent in the presidency. The power of symbolism. To anyone sceptical of the power of symbols, I suggest you walk into a packed synagogue wearing a swastika armband and see how quickly a symbol can inspire robust action. The effective use of symbols can bring about social change just as quickly as any law. In 1990 Mary Robinson was elected as Ireland’s first female president. Robinson was a woman with the backing of Irish socialists, a woman who as a campaigner had previously spearheaded the law that saw contraception legalised in Ireland and the law that saw women sitting on juries for the first time. It would be naive to suggest that modern Ireland is gender neutral; that women enjoy an equal status within the institutions of power. However, let’s not belittle the progress that has been made, and Mary Robinson’s election as president was a powerful message of just how far the equality agenda had come by 1990. Furthermore, it helped consolidate that agenda and there are two candidates in this coming election whose election could send an equally powerful message on other issues.

The candidates

David NorrisThe first of the two candidates whose election would be powerfully symbolic is independent Senator, David Norris. Norris is openly gay. Now, it’s possible for public figures to be openly gay without that fact playing any part in their public statements or – if a politician – their policy decisions. Norris, however, has championed gay rights in Ireland for most of his life. He was the first openly gay person elected to public office in the country. He founded the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform, and his 14 year campaign to overthrow the Irish anti-homosexuality law was finally successful in 1988. The election of David Norris to the presidency would be – whatever else it might be – a triumph for gay rights on this island. Just as the election of Mary Robinson in 1990 didn’t make Ireland gender neutral overnight, so the election of Norris wouldn’t signal the end of homophobia. However, it would be a massive symbolic act by the citizenry of this country. And while there is far more to Norris than just his sexual orientation, we should not underestimate the importance of that symbolic act.

Symbols matter. They’re not all that matters. But they do matter.

But of course Norris is far more than just a gay rights campaigner. He’s an academic and Joycean scholar (very much a point in his favour in my eyes). As an independent senator, he was one of the few politicians to vote against the bank guarantee and has steadfastly and consistently criticised the economic policies of the current and last governments. Within the ranks of the political establishment he’s been a lone voice in the wilderness on a whole bunch of issues. He is outspoken, and he’s erudite and humorous with it. At the same time, his ebullient manner and rarified accent does paint him as a bit of an eccentric in the eyes of some.

Norris started the campaign way out in front in the polls. A couple of months ago the media were almost painting him as a sure thing. Since then, however, he’s been hit by a succession of scandals and – if we’re to believe the polls – his support has plummeted. It’s hard to escape the feeling that the negative stories were – in large part – a tabloid campaign to undermine him. Maybe it was just the inherent anti-intellectualism of the tabloid press rather than homophobia. Or maybe it was a bit of both.

That said, he really dug himself into a hole with the “letters for clemency” scandal. It filled the newspapers for a week, yet the sum-total of the factual information that the average Irish person knows about the issue could fit into a single paragraph. It was outright character assassination, and yet another in a long line of new lows for the mainstream media. But it’s also true that Norris handled it far worse than he might have done and managed to spectacularly shoot himself in the foot on the Vincent Browne debate. I’m not going to rake over those old coals, but my take on it is simple enough… just because some members of the public might well be interested in reading the letters, does not make their publication “in The Public Interest”.

Anyway, Norris will be getting my first preference vote. Yes I think he handled the “letters” scandal badly, but it won’t stop me voting for him. He’s the best person for the job.

Michael D. HigginsMy second preference vote will go to Michael D. Higgins. Up until the last few days that wasn’t the case, but recent polls have made up my mind. If Norris isn’t going to be President, then I want my support to transfer to the person most likely to beat Seán Gallagher (about whom, more later).

Higgins is the official candidate of the Irish Labour Party and I’m desperately trying not to hold that against him. Like Norris, he’s also a scholar and an intellectual. A poet on the left fringe of his (rightward-marching) party… kind of like Tony Benn in the years following the establishment of “New” Labour. Higgins voted against the bank guarantee and has, I suspect, been nominated by the Labour Party partly in the hope that he won’t be a thorn in their side as they implement public sector cuts over the next few years. A president who spoke publicly against government policy would be pushing the limits of their office.

And one thing that Michael D. Higgins won’t be, you see, is a president who pushes the limits of the office. He has called for an overhaul of the Irish constitution and has made it very clear that he does not believe the current government (in which his party is a coalition partner) is a force for social justice. He has decried the values of the Celtic Tiger and lambasted the rampant capitalism it brought to Ireland. But he has a very conservative view of the role of the president and seeks to use the office to initiate a “national conversation” on our social and economic values rather than to directly challenge or obstruct the government in any way. A part of him might secretly daydream of using the position of president to overtly forward a socialist agenda, but it’s not something he’d actually do. A Michael D. Higgins presidency will not be remembered as a revolutionary one. Whether or not any president could effectively act upon a revolutionary agenda is highly questionable of course, but Michael D. Higgins won’t be asking that question. And I worry that he may well be an easy man for the government to ignore once they’ve got him safely ensconced in the big house in Phoenix Park.

Still, by and large he’s a man of honour and integrity and if we are to have a “national conversation” about our values, I can’t think of many better men to chair it. Also, if the polls are to be believed, Higgins is currently the only candidate with any chance of beating Seán Gallagher, automatically earning him my transfer.

Martin McGuinnessI considered giving my second preference to the other “highly symbolic” candidate I mentioned. Martin McGuinness. Let me pause to allow some of you a moment to seethe. Even more divisive than the scandal-hit Norris, Martin McGuinness (yes, that Martin McGuinness) is by far and away the most controversial candidate in this presidential campaign. He has come under fire from many in the media, and the entire campaign by the official Fine Gael candidate seems based around McGuinness-bashing. In fact, the reaction he provoked from many quarters in the establishment was – almost as much as any personal or symbolic qualities of the man – partly the reason I considered voting for him. I don’t subscribe to the maxim that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, but for me it’s definitely an endorsement to have the voices of conservativism raised so stridently against you.

Just as the election of Norris would not eliminate homophobia, the election of McGuinness as President of Ireland would not draw a line under ‘The Troubles’. However, it would be another step away from that dark period of history. There’s no question that the peace process in Northern Ireland was the work of many parties and individuals. It was probably Tony Blair’s finest hour. The same can be said for Bertie Ahern. And the unionists in the north also played a huge part. But I genuinely believe that nobody took a bigger risk (both politically and in a very real “bullet in the head if this doesn’t work” sense) than Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams. It was they who convinced the IRA to put down their weapons. They who walked into darkened rooms filled with men carrying guns and told them they were going to make compromises on their behalf. Blair didn’t have to do that. Ahern didn’t have to do that. I seriously doubt any prominent unionist politician had to do that.

So despite the attempts of Fine Gael to belittle his role in making a success of the Good Friday Agreement, I believe that Martin McGuinness is a peace-maker. That he was a man of violence before that…? Yes he was. Peace-makers sometimes are. I abhor what the IRA did and I abhor the actions of McGuinness so far as they were a part of that. The IRA took a legitimate social grievance and turned it into a campaign of violence that lasted a quarter century. I am not someone who claims that violence can never be justified. But bombs in shopping precincts? Fighting tyranny with those tactics is just another form of tyranny.

However, when a man of violence renounces violence. When he goes further and risks his own life to compel others to renounce it. When he goes further still and sits at a table with his sworn enemy and negotiates a truce to bring peace after more than 25 years of shootings and bombings. Then he is no longer a man of violence. And let’s not forget that the mainstream political parties that now attack McGuinness for his IRA membership are themselves a legacy of organisations that today would be defined as terrorists. Éamon de Valera, president between 1959 and 1973, was himself a “man of violence” once. And compared with Martin McGuinness, de Valera did a damn sight less renunciation and peace-making.

Not that McGuinness is the ideal candidate of course. I understand that political campaigns are all about self-promotion, but if I hear him dropping Nelson Mandela’s name once more I think I’ll scream. And while he has every right to campaign on his track record as a peace-maker, he needs to come up with some different sound-bites. Everyone in Ireland has heard McGuinness say “I was able to build a relationship with loyalist leaders Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson” at least 15 times in the past few weeks. It’s an impressive achievement Martin, and it might have secured a vote from me if it wasn’t for Gallagher, but at least vary the wording now and then.

At no stage did I consider voting for any of the other four candidates In fact, I’d happily write a negative number alongside a couple of their names if such a thing were possible. And at the top of that negative list is the official Fine Gael candidate, Gay Mitchell. Thankfully he’s nowhere in the polls so I don’t have to worry about having Mr. Narky as Head of State.

Gay MitchellLet me start by saying that Gay Mitchell really rubs me up the wrong way. On television he comes across as smug, patronising and frankly unlikeable… he may be nothing like that in the flesh, but most of us are only ever going to encounter him in the media. If he had some good ideas or a positive agenda, I could probably overlook his abrasive media personality. But he doesn’t, so I can’t. His outburst at the end of the Pat Kenny debate was bewildering though strangely appropriate.

Not only could the country not expect any substantial action from a Mitchell presidency, I doubt he’d even carry out the ceremonial aspect of the role very well. In parliamentary campaigns where policy issues can create friction between candidates, negative campaigning is generally unedifying but tolerated. But to have such a relentlessly negative campaign for an office like the Irish presidency suggests that Gay Mitchell and Fine Gael have seriously misjudged the mood of the Irish people. At times during the TV debates it honestly felt like Mitchell was in the campaign for no other reason than to attack Martin McGuinness. It was embarrassing.

Mitchell represents the forces of Irish conservatism more than perhaps anyone else in the race. He is the official candidate of the centre-right government currently pandering to the demands of The Market in such a spineless fashion. A government whose robust promises during the general election campaign have evaporated with remarkable speed… and who have dedicated themselves to continuing the disastrous job of the previous administration. A job that involves asset-stripping this nation for the benefit of an international financial system that’s completely out of control. A job that, when complete, will have plunged future generations into a debt they never asked for and from which they have derived little or no benefit.

On top of that though, Mitchell is an Old School Catholic of a kind this country no longer needs. Of course, realising that hardcore Catholicism isn’t a vote-winner any more, he’s played down his links with Rome. In a radio interview he denied he had any connection with the fundamentalist Catholic, anti-abortion organisation, “Dignitatis Humanae Institute”. Yet a spokesman for the organisation appears to contradict this, suggesting that Mitchell co-authored the Institute’s manifesto (the “Universal Declaration of Human Dignity”). Mitchell’s stance on issues like abortion and homosexuality (including gay marriage) are straight out of The Vatican and are not, in my view, worthy of the Head of State of a modern nation.

Sean GallagherAnother candidate to whom I’d give a negative vote if such a thing were possible, is independent candidate Seán Gallagher. Unlike Gay Mitchell, who represents Ireland as it was a few decades ago – caught in the terrible grip of a Church that had long since lost its soul – Gallagher represents the Ireland of the Celtic Tiger. And I’m genuinely not sure which is worse. Certainly neither would gain my vote.

Gallagher is that ultimate symbol of modern consumer capitalism, the “celebrity entrepreneur”. Young, over-confident to the point of arrogance, and constantly insisting that his track-record of financial success somehow automatically translates to success as a president, Gallagher is a product of an unholy union between Fianna Fáil and The Dragon’s Den. Until a few months ago Gallagher was a member of a political party that spectacularly misused their decade of power and left this country stricken for generations to come. He wisely severed all official ties with that party before announcing his candidacy, so that he could run as an independent. But frankly I’ve yet to hear a single thing from Gallagher that suggests independence of thought.

Instead he regularly trots out the clichés of the modern capitalist. As a “dragon” on the Irish version of Dragon’s Den, Gallagher has sat, week after week, and dangled his piles of cash in front of desperate people before cruelly yanking it away in the name of televisual entertainment. He talks about business and entrepreneurship in the same way a priest talks about God. It’s the reason for living. It’s the salvation of the nation. It is unquestionably a good thing. It will save us all.

It was the mantra of modern capitalism that got Ireland into the mess it’s currently in, and Gallagher hopes to carry that mantra with him as Head of this damaged State. The man marries reality television with a grasping free-market ideology. He pays lip-service to social justice while revelling in the inequities of market capitalism. Were he to become our next president, it would be almost as depressing a decision by the Irish electorate as their selection of Enda Kenny as Taoiseach. More than that, I honestly feel it would haunt us over the next 7 years. The Celtic Tiger is dead. It was never more than a sick joke in the first place. But now the corpse is starting to stink. The Celtic Tiger is never coming back and although people may agree with you when you say that to them, I’m not sure it has really sunk in yet. But it will do. And when it does, having a Tiger Cub like Gallagher as president could end up being a national embarrassment.

Yet he’s way out in front in the polls. Perhaps the implosion on the Pat Kenny debate a couple of nights ago will affect his turnout… are people really already prepared to forgive Fianna Fáil? More than that, to once again embrace the brown envelope culture that pervaded them? Dear God, I hope not.

Mary DavisAlso running as an independent candidate is Mary Davis. I don’t have much to say about her. Mostly because she’s kept rigidly to a rather limited script during the campaign, and relatively speaking the tabloids haven’t had a massive go at her. Despite being an “independent”, Mary Davis is almost as much an establishment insider as Mitchell, Gallagher or Michael D. Her main claim to fame is the fact that she headed the Special Olympics committee during what’s been acknowledged as a very successful Special Olympics held in Ireland a few years back. She insists – perhaps with some justification – that this experience would be invaluable for an international ambassadorial role like the presidency.

However I was mystified by her apparent eagerness early in the campaign to constantly remind the media about the various “boards” she has been appointed to over the past few years; earning large amounts of money for a handful of meetings. Over the past 6 years she earned €150,000 sitting on the board of a bank and a building society. Given the disastrous track-record of Irish banks and building societies during that period, her only defence seems to be that the position she occupied involved no actual power or responsibility. Either she was part of the banking establishment during the run up to the crash, or else she was drawing a handsome salary from the banks for doing very little. This was bound to alienate a hell of a lot of people, and I don’t think her campaign ever recovered.

During that same period of time she earned over €85k for sitting on the board of the Dublin Airport Authority (but presumably bears no responsibility for the various screw-ups during the design and construction of Terminal 2). She earned over €35k for sitting on the board of the Broadcast Commission of Ireland (BCI), and while her working relationship with Irish media-magnate Denis O’Brien has generated a few column inches in the papers, it’s never erupted into a full-blown scandal. O’Brien is chairman of the Special Olympics Ireland Council of Patrons and worked with Davis on the Special Olympics in 2004. He is a contributor to her campaign. And whenever the BCI was voting on whether or not it was appropriate for O’Brien to expand his ownership of Irish media, Mary Davis always voted in his favour. Another case of the mutual back-scratching of the establishment. Nobody seems surprised, let alone outraged.

Though of course, her position in the polls has never been good and it’ll be a small miracle if she gets 10% of first preference votes. So while Ireland does look willing to elect one business-as-usual insider claiming to be independent; it’s not this one.

Dana Rosemary ScallonAnd last but by no means least is Dana Rosemary Scallon. While I shan’t be voting for Dana, unlike either Gallagher or Davis, she at least merits the label of “independent” candidate. Well, in a political sense anyway; her ties to the Catholic Church rob her of total independence. But as far as party politics go, Dana is equally dismissive of the lot of them, and while she has been an independent MEP, there’s no way she could be described as an establishment insider.

Originally coming to prominence when she won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1970 (with the massive worldwide hit, All Kinds of Everything) Dana subsequently went on to have a relatively – if mystifyingly – successful career in music. In the early 80s she broke into the American Christian Music market in a big way, which as it turns out, is a big market.

She ran for president 14 years ago and has also served as an MEP so is not a complete novice to campaigning, though there were times she gave that impression. She had a meltdown on the Prime Time debate and her early campaign appearances in which she constantly brandished a copy of the Constitution made her easy to caricature. Like Mitchell, her ties to the Church make her a somewhat “unfashionable” candidate in a country that is not quite done with its anti-Catholic backlash.

Her TV meltdown related to yet another tabloid scandal (a story about someone in her family) which again revealed the Stygian depths to which the media will stoop to package and sell sensation. The case is something that should be handled by the family and by the legal system; the glare of the media helps absolutely nobody and risks making the situation even worse for everyone. And there is absolutely no public interest served by running the story unless Dana was implicated in any wrong-doing (which she wasn’t). But hey, if it helps sell copies of The Irish Sun who cares if it’s poisoning our culture? Right?

Anyway, Dana is polling in last place and has been for some time. The tabloids didn’t rob her of support as she never really seemed to have much… but they did make it more difficult for her gain any. Still, she didn’t do herself many favours either. Her strident claims that she would single-handedly wrest our sovereignty back from Europe – at least that was the message she appeared to be conveying – mostly had the effect of demonstrating that she didn’t actually understand the role of the President. McGuinness and Norris might be willing to test the limits of the office, but Dana gave the impression that she didn’t know there were any. On top of that, her calm insistence that the Seal of the Confessional trumps national law and is enshrined by the freedom of religion clauses in the constitution, made her sound like a religious extremist in the Vincent Browne debate.

And there you have it

So those are the seven choices we’re faced with on Thursday. Norris would be by far the best president in my view, but seems unlikely to win. Gallagher looks like he’s heading for a victory, which would surely demonstrate – in the words of David Norris – that the Irish people “haven’t learnt much” from the recent economic disaster. We can only hope that Michael D. Higgins will gain enough second preference votes to pip Gallagher to the post.

Also on Thursday we have a couple of referenda (I’ll be voting ‘No’ on each*) and a by-election, though not in my constituency. There’s definitely a strangeness about the fact that at a time when momentous choices need to be made about the path our society takes into the future, we’re being offered a vote on a largely ceremonial position. Then again, we recently had a general election and the public voted for the current government…

… maybe it’s not such a good idea for us to be making important decisions.

* While I support the notion of Dáil Inquries in principle, constitutional experts have stated that the amendment is badly worded and ill-thought out. And regarding judges pay… yes, they probably get paid too much. But there’s actually a small number of them so the total economic impact is small, whereas there are potential problems with turning their salaries into a future political football… if it undermines the separation of judiciary and legislature even a little bit, it’s not worth the money saved.

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Feb 2011

The contempt in politics

With 154 of the 166 seats filled and only three constituencies still counting, the results are pretty much in at this stage. Based on the the exclusions that have already happened in those three constituencies it now seems certain that Fine Gael will end up with 75 or 76 seats. This means they’ll be at least 7 seats short of an overall majority. Fianna Fáil will likely finish with 19 seats (though have an outside chance of 20), which represents the most dramatic collapse in their support in Irish history. The party of De Valera — the party of the Irish establishment — has been effectively wiped out in Dublin (retaining a single seat in the commuter belt) and beaten into a very distant third place nationally, with Labour returning perhaps twice as many TDs (they’re neck-and-neck with independent candidates in a couple of counts as I write this, but they’ll end up with between 36 and 38). The Greens have been entirely removed from national politics in Ireland. They failed to secure election for a single candidate and my prediction – soon after they joined the last government – that they’d “end up as little more than Fianna Fáil’s new scapegoat” seems to have been reasonably correct. Certainly, Fianna Fáil didn’t escape damage by using them as a scapegoat, but the Greens have clearly suffered a similar fate to the PDs, who were the last party to get savaged by the electorate as a result of joining FF at the top table.

Enda Kenny Poster - Thanks, Suckers

It’s worth making the point that I’m far from happy at what’s happened to the Green Party. On the one hand, the individuals who helped prop up such a disastrous Fianna Fáil administration certainly did not deserve to be returned to the Dáil. On the other hand, the wider environmental movement in Ireland can’t help but be harmed by what’s happened.

With regards to the other parties and groupings, there’s part of me that acknowledges that Sinn Féin and the other genuinely left wing candidates have done well relative to their position prior to the election. But there’s also a (probably bigger) part of me that wonders why they didn’t do even better. Given the current situation Ireland finds itself in, the left should arguably have been able to carve out a much bigger place for itself. Sinn Féin will probably end up with 15 seats, a trebling of their current representation. While at the same time, there will probably be at least 8 or 9 other left TDs in the guise of 2 from The Socialist Party, 2 from the People Before Profit Alliance plus a handful of left wing independents. It’s questionable whether they’d be able to work harmoniously enough with Sinn Féin to form a strong alliance, but if they managed it, they could end up as the the official opposition. Which would be a good thing for the country.

Of course, it’s still not absolutely certain that the next government will be a Fine Gael / Labour coalition. There may be enough independents willing to prop up a minority Fine Gael government to save Enda Kenny from having to give away precious cabinet seats to Labour and ensure he doesn’t have to compromise in any policy areas. On the other hand, Fine Gael may well want the security of a large majority (it would be the largest majority in the history of the state were they to form a coalition). Though given the possibility of economic disaster and the internal strains that might create, Kenny could also be concerned about Labour pulling their support when the going got tough, rather than risk the fate of the Greens. I wouldn’t like to predict how that’ll turn out; and neither a minority Fine Gael government nor a FG/Lab coalition would surprise me.

Such contempt

Now that the campaign is over, however, and before we know the final outcome one way or the other, I’d like to make a couple of observations about the last few weeks. About the way the media dealt with the situation, and the way the political parties dealt with the public. While I’ll be making specific reference to Irish politicians and issues, be very clear that these are general and widespread problems that affect modern politics the world over (or at least, in countries that are ostensibly “democracies”).

From my perspective, one of the most frustrating things about the recent election campaign was the ham-fisted media management engaged in by the political parties. This was far and away most prevalent in the Fine Gael camp where their party leader was wrapped in cotton-wool and effectively insulated from potentially antagonistic interviewers.

The most famous example, of course, was his point-blank refusal to take place in the first leaders debate because it was to be chaired by Vincent Browne. In September of last year Browne suggested that the best thing Kenny could do for Ireland would be to “go into a dark room with a revolver and a bottle of whiskey”. A week later, after an outraged reaction from Fine Gael and suicide victim support groups, Browne issued a comprehensive on-air apology. Five months later, in the midst of arguably the most important election campaign in the history of the nation, Enda Kenny seized on that grudge to avoid being questioned before the Irish public.

It was political cowardice. And it demonstrated a contempt for the Irish electorate that he would compound time and again over the next few weeks. It also suggests that Kenny just doesn’t have what it takes to lead a nation in a time of crisis. If he petulantly refuses to talk to someone for a 5-month old slight that’s been apologised for, will he be on speaking terms with anyone outside his party in a couple of years? Because frankly, he’s going to have much worse said about him in the months to come.

Kenny’s strategy appeared to be “say as little as possible and try to look superior”. Bizarrely, when questioned on his policies in the midst of the campaign, he consistently refused to elaborate and instead referred the interviewer (and by extension, the Irish people) to the Fine Gael website. This became so prevalent that it became a point of satire. Opposition politicians (including the Fianna Fáil leader) would often refer to Fine Gael policy by intoning “double-yew double-yew double-yew dot fine gael dot i e”.

The first thing to point out about Enda Kenny’s strategy is that the most recent statistics suggest that 34.2% of Irish people do not use / have access to the internet. That no interviewer challenged him on this fact is a disgrace (you can be bloody sure that Vincent Browne would have!) They were letting Kenny express open contempt for more than a third of the population without drawing any attention to it. The other point to make is that by allowing Kenny to effectively ignore questions about policy detail, the “friendly” media figures he’d allowed to interview him were actively helping Fine Gael be elected. It’s a travesty and RTÉ should be investigated for such craven complicity.

It’s also worth pointing out that Fine Gael’s website doesn’t actually carry the kind of policy detail that Kenny insisted was there. It just doesn’t. The much-vaunted 5-point-plan wasn’t a plan at all. It was five bloody aspirations. Nothing more. “Get Ireland working again” isn’t a plan! Dear God, do they think we’re fools?

Actually yes. They clearly do. And by awarding Fine Gael almost 50% of the seats in the Dáil, the Irish people appear eager to vindicate that opinion.

It should be noted that the majority of people in the media didn’t hold the other parties to much greater account, but the media strategy of the others didn’t involve quite so much overt evasion. Well, not this time. I suspect during the next election, the others will have learnt a lesson or two from Fine Gael and our national broadcaster will have played a large part in ushering in a glorious new era where politicians cherry-pick their media appearances so that they only ever get interviewed by people prepared to lob softballs in their direction and show them in a positive light. Which wouldn’t be a problem if it didn’t leave so many people in the dark.

The ‘No Plan B’ issue

There’s another thing I really want to get off my chest, because it’s frustrated me ever since I started taking notice of politicians. It happens in every election campaign I’ve watched, whether in Ireland, the UK or elsewhere. It’s the point-blank refusal of political candidates to respond to “hypothetical questions”. Sometimes it reaches surreal proportions. A question is asked… “Candidate Joe Bloggs, if your party gets into power will you implement Policy A?” To which the response is… “Well, the election is still some weeks away and it’s up to the people to decide who is in power or not. I’m certainly not going to presume anything at this stage. In fact, I think it would be dreadfully wrong for anyone to be so presumptuous as to assume to know which way the people will vote!” A tenacious interviewer will object… “but Candidate Joe, I asked if you get into power” only to be interrupted… “I can’t answer hypothetical questions”.

Now, obviously that’s an exaggeration, but I suspect everyone reading this recognises the pattern.

In this recent campaign, it was used time and again (by all parties except those on the left, who were very up front indeed on the issue) regarding the IMF/EU “bail out” and the obscenity of the debt transfer. It was a very simple question, and probably the single most important one during this entire campaign. That anyone cast a vote in favour of a party that refused to answer it is utterly scandalous. Yet most of us did. The question goes something like this…

Right now, pretty much everyone accepts that, when combined, the bank debt and sovereign debt will simply bankrupt this country. Nobody sane believes we are capable of bearing such a massive burden. It will crush Ireland. Every party is determined to renegotiate the terms of the deal that saddled us with the bank debt, as well as the levels of interest we must pay on the funds made available to us in the “bail out”. However, if the negotiations do not reduce the burden to a sustainable level, what then? What is Plan B?

The left has a simple response… we default on the bank debt while honouring our sovereign debt and restructuring the economy in such a way as to repay it. At that point, you can argue back and forth about the merits of default, or the details of restructuring. You agree or disagree with the proposal.

But Fianna Fáil, Labour, Fine Gael and even the Greens all refused to answer the question. “The negotiations have not happened yet”, they tell us. “The stress tests on the banking system won’t be complete until the end of March”, they tell us. “it would be wrong to presume the outcome of the negotiations / stress tests”, they insist.

I wanted an interviewer — just one of them! — to bellow into their complacent faces “No it damn well wouldn’t be wrong! In fact, it’s your job to presume! We want a government that already has answers to the obvious hypothetical situations, not one just making it up as they go along. Any fricking idiot can do that! Is that what you are? A fricking idiot!!?”

In fact, I’d want the interviewer to use even more exclamation points and italics than that.

How are these fools and charlatans allowed to get away with either not having plans for critical potential situations, or else not telling the electorate what those plans are, so that we can vote in an informed manner? It’s not democracy if the agenda is hidden.

UPDATE: The Jim Bliss 5-Point Plan for Recovery

  1. Free jet-packs for everyone
  2. Top grades for every child in school
  3. A cure for cancer
  4. The winning lottery numbers mailed to every home the day before the draw
  5. Get Ireland Working!

Vote Jim Bliss in 2014. I guarantee nobody has a better 5-point plan.

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Feb 2011

Election 2011: Because real change is too much to expect

Tomorrow, the country goes to the polls. Finally! The election campaign feels like it’s been going on for about a year, which would have been draining even if the candidates had anything interesting or illuminating to say. But of course, they didn’t. They spent their time filling the airwaves with words aimed at obscuring their policies and the issues facing the country. The three main party leaders argued with apparent passion about policy differences so slight as to be essentially insignificant. And they joined forces to pour scorn on any alternative to their crony-capitalism whenever it raised its head. It speaks volumes that given a straight choice between the current government (who facilitated the capitalist smash-and-grab that has been perpetrated upon Ireland) and their likely successor, led by Enda Kenny — a man who whenever he’s questioned on policy in public tells the people to log onto their website (you can almost see the contempt dripping from his lips) — I’d probably leave the old lot in power.

Seriously. That’s how bad the situation is.

But of course, that’s not the choice facing the country. If opinion polls are to be believed (and they’ve all been remarkably consistent), Fianna Fáil will experience complete electoral meltdown. Remarkably, they are not running enough candidates to gain an overall majority even if every single one of them were elected. That’s pretty mind-boggling. Imagine a UK general election where the Labour party only fielded 290 candidates. Or a US congressional election where the Democrats fielded 194. It’s less an admission of defeat as it is an active refusal to be in power. De Valera must be turning in his grave. Though of course, Fianna Fáil exorcised the spirit of De Valera from their party the moment they placed the interests of private financial institutions above the interests of Irish citizens. Whatever his faults (and he had many) Dev would never have done that. In fact, he’d probably have had any finance minister who proposed such a move tried for treason.

In fairness to Fine Gael, they’ve always had more of a pro-capitalist outlook than Fianna Fáil, even before the Celtic Tiger got its claws into Bertie. Which makes it all the more remarkable that the Irish people seem to be turning to them to get us out of a crisis caused by the failure of international capitalism. Ultimately the story of this election will be the astonishing failure of the left wing parties to take advantage of this failure. A member of the United Left Alliance interviewed on Vincent Browne’s show last night appeared proud to predict his alliance would gain between 4 and 8 seats. Browne was incredulous. As, quite frankly, am I. When the vice-like grip of international capital begins choking the life out of a country, why aren’t the socialist left confidently predicting 40 to 80 seats!? How have they failed to capitalise (pun intended) on this situation? Even Sinn Féin, a left wing party hampered by the fact that half the country will never vote for them for historical reasons, appear likely to do better than the ULA.

The argument is that the Irish population is inherently conservative. That despite claiming they want change, they’re actually too scared of it to do anything other than prop up the existing establishment. It’s depressing, and frankly, if they elect a Fine Gael majority government, they are essentially stating — unambiguously — that they are happy with the way the country was governed during the past few years. It’s just bizarre. I have heard people say that they wouldn’t want to take a risk with the left… that the left might bankrupt the country. As though a nation of less than 5 million people can take on a hundred billion euro of private gambling debt and not already be bankrupt. It’s an insane perspective, but one that seems prevalent.

We can only hope that the opinion polls are wrong. That Fine Gael get nowhere near an overall majority and are consequently forced to water down their savage policies to appease a coalition partner. That the left parties gain far more seats than they expect. That whoever is in government realises that forcing the Irish people to pay off debts they didn’t run up is both morally wrong and logistically impossible. That come Saturday night, we have a government that will place the interests of the Irish people above the interests of financial institutions… a government for whom the phrase “we must all share the burden” doesn’t automatically have an unspoken “except the very wealthy” tagged on the end.

Anyway, it’ll all be over soon. The election’s tomorrow. The count’s on Saturday. If Fine Gael get an overall majority, we’ll know the outcome by Saturday night. If they need a coalition partner, it’ll be the middle of next week. After that, I’ll ease off on the rants about Irish politics and return to rants about sustainability and the occasional music review. I suspect my regular readers will be happy about that.

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Jul 2007

Election 2007: Was that it?

Election 2007

So we’ve got a new government. Kind of. In truth it looks suspiciously like the old one. Like someone you know who suddenly looks different, and it takes you a few moments to realise they’ve got a new pair of glasses.

Bertie’s still in charge. Fianna Fáil are still the party of power. And the Progressive Democrats are still ruining the health service. Did I say “ruining”? I’m sorry; I meant “running” of course.

So no change there then.

But that’s not the whole story. There’s the new pair of glasses… Bertie invited The Greens to the cabinet table and after a week of negotiations (which seems like a long time to insert the words “and Green Party” into the Fianna Fáil manifesto) they accepted. However, despite having voted Green myself (at the very least implying I wanted them to be part of a governing coalition), I’m fairly worried about this development. My own analysis of the election result is that the electorate essentially voted with its wallet. It voted for the continuation of the economic boom of the past decade (I know, I know, don’t get me started). Fianna Fáil were returned to power because people didn’t want to upset the economic applecart. And what frustrations they did have with the government; they took out on the coalition partners — the PDs — who were given a serious kicking.

If the Greens aren’t careful, they’ll end up as little more than Fianna Fáil’s new scapegoat. And that has the potential not only to discredit them as a political party, but to do serious damage to the wider environmental movement in Ireland. Careful now.

The Results

The first word that sprung to mind when the counts started to come in was “unimaginative”. Fianna Fáil’s share of the vote remained almost steady, losing only 4 seats; remarkable for a party that’s held power for the past ten years. Meanwhile the other large centre-right party — Fine Gael — recovered from its disastrous showing last time and gained 20 seats. A significant comeback that not only secures Enda Kenny as party leader for the foreseeable future, but also demolished the smaller parties. Labour, meanwhile, were down one seat against all media predictions which had suggested they’d pick up seats as part of Fine Gael’s Alliance For Change. In the event, their static performance probably means it will be Pat Rabbitte’s last election as party leader. Look for them to change leadership within a year.

In the run up to the election it had been the smaller parties who had been predicted to do well. I believe that this expectation ended up driving support away from them. The people got freaked out by the possibility that they might actually change something… challenge the established system… and they voted safe instead. So the genuinely popular leader of the Irish Socialist Party lost his seat in one of the shocks of the election, leaving the Dáil without any traditional hammer’n’anvil old-style Socialist TDs. This will be to the detriment of Irish political life in my view.

Sinn Féin had been predicted to make serious inroads, to become a real force in Irish politics. Instead they lost one of their five seats. People have been asking whether it was their politics or their history that put the voters off. I don’t think it was either. I just think they suffered, along with every other alternative to the Big Two, in the headlong rush to the centre-right.

The PDs though. That was an odd one. From 8 seats down to 2, and party leader and Minister for Justice Michael McDowell losing his. That was the closest we came this election to a “Portillo moment”… McDowell resigning from public life and buggering off home leaving the PDs leaderless on what was already a dire night for them. Oh how I grinned. Though I suspect my grin wasn’t half as wide as the one on the face of Gerry Adams. His party may not have been doing so well, but he could at least console himself with the knowledge that his bitterest political rival south of the border was doing so much worse.

The trouble is, of course, that just like the original Portillo moment, the demise of the PDs isn’t about The Fall of The Right. Sadly it’s merely the result of someone else successfully occupying that territory. Back in the 80s when the PDs emerged, they were all about pushing Ireland away from thoughts of socialism and towards the beckoning Celtic Tiger. They like to take credit for that, but that’s because they misunderstand the complexities of social and cultural evolution. The PDs were merely a symptom of a global change. Teenage spots, or menopausal hot-flushes. And now that the change has occurred, they’re pretty much cleared up. Sorry, irrelevant.

But, as Mary Harney reminds us, even adults get the occasional pimple once in a while.

Despite the resurgence of Fine Gael, the decimation of the PDs and the loss of four Fianna Fáil seats wasn’t enough to push Bertie’s Team out (thanks in no small part to the underwhelming performance by Labour). He was only six short of an overall majority. The two PDs could be counted on, which left him only needing four. Of the five remaining independents (down from 13), four of them were either ex-Fianna Fáil or known to be broadly in support of the party. So he had his government, and he let everyone know it. He didn’t need another coalition partner, but because it was such a slender majority, he acknowledged that another partner would certainly make the government more stable.

Enter: The Greens

The Green Party had — like Sinn Féin — been expected to gain a bunch of seats. They had 6 seats and conservative predictions saw them picking up at least four more. Some even suggested they could end up with as many as 14 or 15 TDs in the new Dáil. In the end they stayed steady; lost a couple of seats, but picked up a couple elsewhere (it was a Green who pushed McDowell out in Dublin South-East). All the same, despite the (against predictions) poor showing, they had enough seats to turn Bertie’s slender majority into a workable one.

For Fianna Fáil it meant they didn’t have to contemplate getting into bed with Sinn Féin — for Bertie to invite Sinn Féin to form part of the Irish government would be an incredibly controversial, and very risky, move. He’s happy to leave that particular nettle to be grasped by some future leader of Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. And talking to The Greens also meant that Fianna Fáil didn’t need to engage with Labour. Pat Rabbitte’s 20 TDs would have demanded far more influence at the cabinet table than the 6 Greens could realistically expect.

And so the negotiations began. A friend of mine insisted that “Shannon will be the sticking point”. By this she meant that the Greens couldn’t possibly be part of a government that allowed the US military to use Shannon airport. Then the newspapers revealed that they’d caved on Shannon. They were prepared to be part of a government that actively supported the US military. My friend was disgusted. “That’s the last time they get my vote. What was the fucking point of their manifesto anyway?” Elsewhere… “Tara will be the sticking point”. In other words, the Greens couldn’t possibly be part of a government that drove a motorway through the Tara Valley. That would be just silly, right?

Well… it turns out the final act of the outgoing Fianna Fáil Environment and Heritage Minister, Dick Roche, was to sign the go-ahead for the M3. I guess at least it lifts the burden of responsibility from the incoming Green Environment and Heritage Minister, John Gormley. He’ll merely have to oversee this “act of cultural and historic vandalism” (Green Party Environment spokesperson, Ciarán Cuffe TD, 31st March 2005) rather than approve it. Just imagine if the Greens are not part of the next government. Just imagine if this turns out to be their one shot at power for a generation. What a legacy, eh?

TV Quiz Show Host, 2019: When The Green Party enjoyed their one period in office during the troubled government of 2007-10, what is acknowledged to have been their primary achievement?
Contestant: Was it supervising the destruction of Ireland’s most important Heritage Site, the Tara Valley, Alan?
TV Quiz Show Host (Alan): Yes it was Joan! And that brings your total up to… a staggering… 14.75 litres of fuel oil!!!
[Wild applause]
Contestant (Joan): Thankyou.

Also, when the Green Party asked the question (as they did), with respect to the M3, “How much of Ireland’s history is this Government prepared to sacrifice on the altar of economic growth?” I wonder did they imagine they’d be in a position to answer it too?

The party I voted for has been given two seats at the new cabinet table. John Gormley (expected to be the new party leader after Trevor Sargent stepped down post-election in order to keep his promise of not leading them into government with Fianna Fáil) gets Environment and Heritage, while Eamon Ryan was given the Ministry of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. These are clearly key departments from the perspective of implementing more sustainable national policies. So why am I so unhappy?

Well, because I didn’t actually vote for the people. I voted for their damn policies. I voted for a party that pledged to end US military flights in and out of Shannon. I voted for a party that called the routing of the M3 an “act of cultural and historic vandalism”. I voted for a manifesto that pledged to stop that vandalism. Instead we have Greens in government and US military aircraft still fly in and out. And I can’t even say “Well, at least I wouldn’t vote for a party that would allow such a thing.” Wrong! Turns out the people I voted for are happy to allow it — in my name, no less — in return for the chance to influence policy at some unspecified point in the future. And who knows when that point will be? After all, those two ministers are going to have their hands full implementing Bertie’s vision for the next while.

I don’t know… I do hear the arguments… yes Bertie would still have been Taoiseach if the Greens hadn’t jumped on board. Maybe he’d have done a deal with Labour. Maybe he’d have tried to go it alone with the PDs and independents. But by staying out of government, The Greens would not have been preventing Bush refuelling his planes here or stopping the M3 from being built. And that’s a fact. These things would happen with or without Green involvement, and maybe — just maybe — they’ll have a chance to influence things for the better from the inside.

The trouble is, I just don’t believe it. I’d have preferred they stuck to the policies they campaigned on, even if that meant opposing from without rather than influencing from within. Because when all’s said and done, you have to take responsibility for what you do and not what you promised to do. Right now the Greens are helping to govern this country, so every time a CIA plane lands in Shannon it is doing so with Green Party approval… and thanks to representative democracy… with my approval. There’s a line in the TV show Angel… Fred insists “we’re not evil, we’re changing the system from within”. Gunn replies wearily, “y’know, it sounds really naive when you actually say it out loud”.

5 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

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.

3 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion