Gerard Howlin: Election likely to signal end of dominance by big two parties

Gerard Howlin: Election likely to signal end of dominance by big two parties
Brendan Howlin at the launch of Labour’s manifesto yesterday. But the parties on the broad left have made a mistake in allowing Sinn Féin dominate their stage. Picture: PA

The issue in this election is whether there will be a change of government. The bigger issue is whether two larger parties sharing 50% of the vote can continually configure government around themselves.

I think not. In that sense, this election is likely to be the last dominated bilaterally by the bigger two. That is the follow-on from the 2011 election and the aftershock of the 2016 result.

It is underlain by generational, cultural and technological change. It is now a different era.

Fine Gael realised too late that there is an alternative government. It assumed too readily after 2011 that it was the natural party of government. It adopted the panoply of power, but never developed the street smarts of a ward boss required to hold it.

Culture and technology has changed; human nature hasn’t. Too introverted socially to colonise more widely, it plateaued in power, and then gradually receded. It is a story over nine years of political ineptitude by an often competent government.

Its specific predicament in this election is different. It is not that it failed to flatter others who were not its own, it is that it has been found guilty of the crime of class betrayal by its very own.

This is the margin of difference between having enough to carry on in government, and going into opposition.

If Fine Gael is anywhere south of a percentage of the vote between the mid and high-20s, its own family has fractured.

What is Fine Gael?

It is a political home for people of means and property. It has its grandees, of course, but many of its followers are of more modest stock. They were seldom cotters, however, and almost never found in tenements.

There was typically a patina of education, respectability and some material substance.

Its people are lineal heirs and political descendants of peasants who became farmers.

Liberated from serfdom by the Land Acts, especially Wyndham’s in 1903, in the largest measure of self-help and socialism on these islands until the establishment of the NHS, they are proud of their status if a little forgetful of its origins.

In the long arc of 100 years, Fine Gael’s crime against their class now is to have denied their educated, adult progeny a prospect of property of their own.

This reversal of fortune is deeply dislocating of status for people to whom status is important.

Fine Gael’s loss of its own core support correlates exactly with the loss of self-esteem of those who believed they belonged, but have lived long enough to see their children as tenants once again.

Fine Gael has privately understood that neither social housing nor homelessness are its issues politically.

They know, of course, that they are important public issues. And Fine Gael people I know are concerned citizens. Unlike many of their naysayers, they are genuinely trying.

But no prospective Fine Gael voter is homeless and I would wager that none aspires to social housing. You can argue with the rights and wrongs of that outlook, I am simply stating what I believe is true.

Fine Gael’s failure and the nub of its predicament is that it broke the compact with some of its own.

George Orwell writing on Jonathan Swift remarked that his aim “is a static, incurious civilisation — the world of its own day, a little cleaner, a little saner, with no radical change and no poking into the unknowable”.

Emotionally geared to upholding government rather than upending it, Fine Gael settled too close to the status quo.

There is still a path to power for Fine Gael. It must show cause to its own middle class left behind.

It must show much more clearly the danger of an alternative. Its housing and health ministers are best neither seen nor heard.

It has so far failed to platform a significant Fine Gael voice for rural Ireland. But if it can convince enough, and relatively few would suffice, that a house of your own by 2025 is a reasonable prospect, it may have a chance.

If that hope is appropriately tinged with fear of what’s next, there may be just enough movement to catch up in the second half of this campaign. They will have to up their game, however. Time is short.

The Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil competition is a boxing match between conjoined twins. Fianna Fáil is implicated in a Fine Gael government. But the fact of that overlap makes it hard for the incumbent to demonise the prospect of the alternative.

The bigger issue is that the hinterland of both is diminished. When we last had competitive election in 2007, those parties competed for 70% of the vote. Now it seems likely to be 50%.

In a sense, the apparent choice is political fiction. Old forms overlay new facts but not for much longer. Unless Fianna Fáil and all its prospective allies do exceptionally well, somebody is going to have to do something they swore they wouldn’t if we are to have any government at all.

Competition for the other half of the vote is dominated by Sinn Féin.

It is clear on its willingness to do business with either of the bigger parties. Ironically, other parties on the broad left allow them dominate the stage. That’s a mistake.

The result of success in their terms is participation in a centre or centre-right leaning government. Right2Change was willingly or otherwise used to platform Sinn Féin in 2016 for a broader purpose that remains unclear.

I have no qualms about Sinn Féin in government. They are a nationalist, populist party with left leanings. They are in no sense a committed left party. Pragmatism not policy is their lodestone.

Standing back to allow Sinn Féin dominate the debate among all alternatives to the bigger two parties, is a reprise of Labour sitting out the 1918 election. The left would wait again for a chance that never came.

Now they are positioned as a doorstep for somebody going in the opposite direction.

Solidarity is an exception to the general malaise on the left around Sinn Féin. Their outgoing TD in Cork North Central Mick Barry has called them out. But that’s an exception.

Then there is the funny side of politics. All on the left, but not only them, want to narrow the tax base, and weaken the capacity of the State to deliver anything.

Social houses don’t happen in counties without a property tax. Carbon emissions won’t diminish without carbon charges as part of a bigger plan.

Our water infrastructure will continue leaking until we have water charges to underline investment and challenge user behaviour. The high you get from tax cuts is liable to end in a hangover.

My sympathy in this election is unequivocally with politicians. No survey of the Irish people can avoid the conclusion that our leaders deserve better followers.

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