I’VE been waiting for someone to use the phrase “the risen people” to describe what has just happened. We’ve just had out own little Egyptian or Libyan revolution. No guns, no violence, no deaths. Just a quiet and determined people making their point.
And it produced a moment to savour. We still can’t be sure if, in years to come, historians will write that this was the election that changed the shape of Irish politics. That might take another election — or it might be determined by how the next government shapes up.
But in my lifetime there’s never been anything like it. One political party was completely eliminated from the map, another decimated to the point where it’s hard to see any way back for them. Three political parties scored their best ever performances. For a moment or two over the weekend, the possibility existed that Enda Kenny would be Taoiseach of a single-party government, with Eamon Gilmore leading the opposition. Then, later on Saturday, it looked possible that Gerry Adams would be leading the opposition.
At the end of it all, the only real likelihood is of a Fine Gael and Labour government. I’ll write some more about that tomorrow. For now, I’m still trying to get my head around what just happened.
On Wednesday, December 15, Brian Cowen took Leaders’ Questions in the Dáil. It wasn’t one of the rowdier sessions, perhaps because it was the second last sitting day before Christmas, although it was testy enough. Counting back from today, Monday, that was 75 days ago. Mary Coghlan was his Tánaiste, Mary Harney his Health Minister. Mary Hanafin was Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, and arrayed along the front bench, all looking quite comfortable, were people like Dermot Ahern, Batt O’Keeffe, Noel Dempsey.
Between them they had more than a century of political experience, and decades of government experience. And they were backed up by others who had been dominant figures in Irish politics for what seemed like generations. If you look at the video of that day’s sitting, you’ll see Mary O’Rourke looking pleased with herself, Martin Mansergh in earnest conversation with Tom Kitt, John Gormley and Eamonn Ryan adopting a somewhat semi-detached pose.
Just 75 days later, every one of them is gone. Not just gone on a break, but in all probability gone from the political scene for ever.
75 days. It hardly seems credible that in that time we’ve seen the destruction of the greatest political force this country has ever seen, alongside the complete elimination of the Green Party. And yet it has happened.
I got a fair bit of stick here last week when I said that the polls predicting a bit of a Fianna Fáil recovery, a possible Fine Gael landslide, and a lot of slippage in the Labour vote were all wrong. But crucially, they were.
And the other thing that was fundamental to the outcome was the way in which Ireland’s almost unique use of the single transferable vote can be used to punish. It was obvious from a long way that Fianna Fáil hadn’t a hope of attracting transfers.
Normally, a party that attracted 17.4% of the vote, as Fianna Fáil did, could expect 28, perhaps 29 seats. Fianna Fáil won’t break 20 (as I write this they have 17 with three more possibilities). That figure demonstrates more than anything else that slightly more than four out of every five voters in this election was hell-bent on removing them — and the Green Party — as far from office as they possibly could.
In the process the voters have sent a powerful message of reform to the entire political system, to the extent that no party can ignore it. They demanded that the next Dáil should be a far different place than anything we have seen so far in Irish politics. As Micheál Martin put it — it was one message he got loud and clear — the people are fed up with the old politics, and want to see it done differently in future.
While the biggest change might have been sweeping away Fianna Fáil and the Greens, it was not the only change. Look at some others:
nMore first-time parliamentarians than ever before.
nMore left-wingers than ever before — in government, probably, and in opposition.
nMore young people than ever before, and brilliant young people on all sides.
nMore women than ever before, even though not nearly enough ran.
The structure of the next Dáil has been changed beyond recognition and that in itself guarantees that reform will be a key element of our politics from here on in. Enda Kenny made the point, and the promise, last night when he said: “I give you my guarantee that the incoming government is not going to leave the people in the dark about what is happening whether it is good or whether it is bad’.
Perhaps more than anything that’s what the people rebelled against in this election — a government that trusted the people so little it was unwilling ever to communicate the truth to us. And the quiet democratic rebellion of 2011 is only the first step in restoring accountability and fairness to the process of government. But what a first step it has been.