Victoria White: Radical shifts from left to right are not all they’re cracked up to be

It's different here, I explained. We’ve a thing called Proportional Representation. We get coalitions of very different parties.

“Parties of the left or right?” my English friend asked on WhatsApp.

Party leaders Micheál Martin, Leo Varadkar, and Mary Lou McDonald at the RTÉ Prime Time Leaders’ Debate. Picture: Leah Farrell /
Party leaders Micheál Martin, Leo Varadkar, and Mary Lou McDonald at the RTÉ Prime Time Leaders’ Debate. Picture: Leah Farrell /

The two parties which have governed the country since the foundation of the State are both in the centre. By your standards, that is.

Fine Gael is right of centre, but might look Blairite to you. Fianna Fáil is slightly to the left of Fine Gael, and would also pass for Blairite.

It all depends what mood is on them and the mood that is on their opponents. They go up and down like two sides of a see-saw.

My friend — a devoted leftie — smells a rat.

“Where is your left wing, then?” Well, there’s the Irish Labour Party and the Irish Green Party and the Social Democrats, but currently none of these is the main opposing party. The main opposing party is Sinn Féin.

Left wing?

Yes, in parts, but they’re also nationalists and populists. A really positive thing about this country, from my point of view, is that our populism is left-wing. There’s no populist anti-immigration party with any share of the vote.

There’s silence again on WhatsApp as she mulls this over.

What kind of Government can you get out of those parties, she asks?

I don’t know, I say candidly. It’s like Pangea is breaking up again and new continents are forming. The two Civil War parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, are slowly losing their share of the vote and slowly joining up.

FF has been propping up FG in Government for the past four years, and this time round FG says it will go into coalition with FF if necessary. I think this is good news. It’s appropriate, 100 years after the State was founded. Then again, the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar — the half-Indian one, my English friend interjects — has never understood Civil War politics.

I remember him standing up in our parliament in 2010 and insulting the Fianna Fáil Taoiseach by dissing a revered former leader of his own party as a useless Prime Minister and comparing him unfavourably to two former Fianna Fáil leaders:

You’re no Sean Lemass, you’re no Jack Lynch or John Bruton, you’re a Garret FitzGerald. You’ve trebled the national debt and effectively destroyed the country.

I absolutely adored that speech because it was so incautious but also because it was true.

So if those two parties beginning with “F” join up, my friend asks, growing a little irritated, does that mean there’ll be a clearer left and right wing in Irish politics?

Not necessarily, I said. Potential governments include Fine-Gael/Fianna Fáil as well as Sinn Féin/Greens/Labour/Social Democrats, but also Fianna Fáil/Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil/Sinn Féin/Greens, or Fianna Fáil/Greens/Labour/Social Democrats.

The left has been clamouring for a clear left/right divide since 1926 at least. A potential “consolidation of the left” is the reason that former Fine Gael Taoiseach Alan Dukes gave last week on RTÉ radio that the union of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil should be avoided.

He said we’d end up lurching backwards and forwards between left and right and then we might be in as bad a state as ... Well, the UK.

“How could it be a bad thing to have a clear left and a clear right?” asks my friend.? I could have told her to look in the mirror, but I didn’t. I said that Alan Dukes had made the point that Ireland has progressed a lot under these see-sawing coalitions.

This is no more than the truth.

I was born in the 1960s in a country which numbered among the poorest of developed nations.

This country now holds third place in the UN’s Human Development Index, while the UK comes in at Number 15, 12 places behind us, despite several centuries of plundering much of the known Earth for its empire.

We saw a 23% increase in our human development between 1990 and 2017. The average length of our schooling increased from 11.4 years in 1980 to 18.6 years in 2013, while the UK’s average length of schooling went from 12.9 years in 1980 to just 16.2 years in 2013.

My voice was getting more and more high-pitched, as it tends to do when I am defending my country against British criticism.

Perhaps, I near-shrieked, radical shifts from left to right are not all they’re cracked up to be!

“What are your per-capita carbon emissions?” she asks.

Oh, those. Well ...

On average, we emit over 8.8 tonnes of carbon per person per year — or 12.67 of greenhouse gases (carbon equivalents) — while the Brits emit 5.8 tonnes of carbon and 7.1 of carbon equivalents.

We’re the fourth-worst emitters in the EU while the Brits are the 10th best. That’s because you’ve had nothing but right-of-centre parties in office, she announces. They’ll never cut carbon emissions.

Help, I think. Maybe she’s right.

She hadn’t seen the TV debate between the leaders of FF, FG, and SF on Tuesday night, but I had.

FG is suggesting a 2% in annual emissions reduction rather than the annual 7% emissions reductions which would be necessary if we are not to breach our EU 2030 emissions target, as we have our 2020 target; Fianna Fáil commits to the target, but does not have the roadmap to get there.

Leader of the so-called left, Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald, announced, against all the evidence, that carbon taxes don’t work and gaped like a goldfish when asked what exactly a “massive” investment in EV charging points meant.

I remember reading that Green and the anti-immigrant, climate change denying right were the two new poles of European politics, rather than the traditional left and right. I thought that was a credible argument at the time.

Look at Irish politics, though, and it falls down.

Our anti-immigrant climate change deniers are at the fringes in the form of a few Independents. Our main parties are officially neither. They have been, however, largely inert on both issues.

When it comes to migration, we may not have an anti-immigrant voice in mainstream politics, but some of the direct provision centres set up by the Department of Justice are as isolated from Irish society as the leper colonies of old.

I put down the phone in case my friend gets on to housing and health.

British Labour’s NHS and its monster home-building programmes date from the mid-20th century, however, and were not replicated under New Labour. It is possible that in today’s more complex world the “shifting continents” model of government furnished us by Proportional Representation could show a new, more progressive way forward to the rest of the OECD than the Punch and Judy show of left and right provided by First Past The Post.

Maybe our new Government will be so socially progressive and egalitarian as it drives down carbon emissions that it becomes an example of new politics for western Europe and shuts my English friend up once and for all.

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