2011 saw political decimation and a real chance to reform our system

WHAT a year.

In all sorts of ways, none of them good, 2011 will go down in history as both eminently forgettable and at the same time totally unforgettable. There’s already no doubt it will need a chapter of its own in the history books of the future.

In my lifetime, there have been two years that produced the economic and political turbulence that we’ve seen in the past 12 months: 1969 gave us the arms crisis and the start of a quarter of a century of violence and terror in the North, while 1994 produced the IRA ceasefire and the collapse of a government in the most controversial circumstances possible.

This year saw the actual elimination of one political party, the virtual elimination of another, and the decimation of a third.

The PDs finally disappeared altogether with the decision of their founder, Mary Harney, to take her pension and go. Of course, she hadn’t been a card-carrying member for some time, but as long as she was around there was always the possibility that, Dracula-like, the party could reappear at dead of night.

The Green Party was destroyed, and it is impossible to see how any of its last group of parliamentarians will ever see the inside of Leinster House again. They were good, decent and well-meaning people who made a complete dog’s dinner of their time in government. Long after the government of which they were a part was utterly discredited, they hung on and hung on, trying to convince themselves and the rest of the world that they mattered.

Fianna Fáil was decimated. This time last year I wrote a piece here that effectively said good riddance to them. Astonishingly they continued to hang on — to the point of trying to carry through a cabinet reshuffle. When that failed, we were treated to a bizarre spectacle of several ministers carrying multiple portfolios, like Pooh Bah, the Lord High Everything Else in The Mikado. Mind you, watching others walk off into the sunset with enormous pensions, rather than face the judgement of the people, was equally surreal.

Ultimately, there was no escape. Fianna Fáil betrayed every core value they had, and they appeared to do it in their sleep. The TV3 documentary made recently featured one Fianna Fáil worthy after another claiming that they were never properly consulted, that votes weren’t properly conducted, that they had tried to warn against some of the things the Party ended up doing. It all had the look of the naughty schoolboy, caught outside the orchard with his pockets full of apples, denying he had ever done — “and anyway, even if I did, ye never saw me”.

Will Fianna Fáil ever be forgiven? Will it be able to rebuild the stranglehold on Irish politics it enjoyed for 70 years? At the end of this momentous year, I am as convinced as ever that the answer is no. It’s too soon to predict the demise of Fianna Fáil, that’s for sure, but there is no chance they will ever again be the kind of force they once were.

At the moment of the general election, Fianna Fáil became an ordinary political party. It will still take time for the rest of us to adjust to that, but I don’t believe that in my lifetime I will ever again see a Fianna Fáil taoiseach. It’s just possible to see them sharing in a future coalition government — probably with Fine Gael — but never again to see them in the top job.

Just look at what happened in the first 60 days of 2011. Brian Cowen, Mary Coughlan, Mary Harney, Mary Hanafin, Dermot Ahern, Batt O’Keeffe, Noel Dempsey, John O’Donoghue, Mary O’Rourke, Martin Mansergh, John Gormley and Eamonn Ryan all gone from Irish public life. And more whose names we’ve already forgotten. Centuries of political experience, decades of it in government. All gone, gone utterly.

Equally astonishing things happened on the other side of Irish politics. Three political parties — Fine Gael, Labour, and Sinn Féin — had their best ever results in the election. Fine Gael came within a weekend of an overall majority, before the people seemed to decide that they simply didn’t want to vest power in one organisation.

The new Dáil, when it assembled, was radically different in all sorts of ways. More first-time parliamentarians than ever before. More left-wingers than ever before — in government and in opposition. More young people than ever before, and brilliant young people on all sides, constituting the youngest Dáil, I reckon, since the foundation of the state. A huge increase in the number of women. A widely diverse group of independents, although determined to use the Dáil better by working together.

In short, 2011 produced even more radical shifts in party politics than most of us could have imagined. And yet, already, people are saying that no change happened. It’s the same old government, just different faces. There’s no real change in policy. That’s what people are saying. And it’s coupled with a media insistence on reminding everyone, again and again, of broken government promises.

Yes, promises have been broken. In the heat of the election campaign both of the parties in government said some pretty daft things. The irony was that they probably didn’t need to make those promises in the first place. The only real competition in the election was between the two of them. However, that competition was enough for them to make damaging commitments that will be hung around their necks for a while yet — at least until we all begin to see a real economic recovery.

And it is also true that the radical shift in party politics has yet to be matched by a change in ideological direction. We really need to see a great deal more imagination from this government as it becomes bedded in, and as it gets on top of the policy analysis and the structures of government.

BEFORE the election, when the result was obvious, I said here that “if, four years or so from now, we are talking about a government that rolled its sleeves up, that lived modestly and worked hard, that spent time amongst the people, and that really reformed the politics of our country — if we can say all those things about them, they will be well on their way to a second term. They have a chance, more than any government before them, to make austerity mean something good, something we can all feel a bit better about.”

To a considerable measure, they have lived up to that. Of course more is needed, and of course we all hope that they have learned the lessons of the past.

We can’t yet say that we managed to replace the worst government we’ve ever seen with the best.

What we did elect, though, was a government without arrogance. An honest, reasonably open, and very hard-working government. A government that has already begun to reform the underpinnings of our democracy. A government that appears to be willing to admit the occasional mistake, and to learn from them.

So maybe, after all, 2011 wasn’t a complete political waste.

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