This is an opportunity unimagined by so many of the world’s population that we cannot take it lightly. By voting we celebrate in the most meaningful way the events of a century ago, events provoking far less authentic but enthusiastic evocations today. Could there be a better way to honour those who stepped forward in 1916, no matter how you view that Easter’s events and their sometimes tragic legacy, than by voting today? It is very hard to think of one.
This reality persists despite what was often an uninspiring, lacklustre, and occasionally inane election campaign. It was all too often dishonest or cynically evasive, aping the post-factual rants driving Donald Trump’s alarming march on the White House. The campaign frequently plumbed new depths of mediocrity — yes, that was, incredibly, possible. It was all too often dispiriting and fed into the disconcerting sense of disconnect and scepticism, if not cynicism, eating away at our our political system.
That some parties’ presentations, particularly Fianna Fáil’s and Sinn Féin’s, depended on voters being afflicted by a blinding, irreversible amnesia added to the perception that the whole process was second-rate tribalism uninformed by the idealism, imagination or the kind of open-mindedness appropriate in a progressive republic. So much of what was offered as political debate was the kind of boorish insularity that occasionally turns Junior B football games into nose-breaking hold-me-backs.
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It is of course very easy to be a critical hurler on the ditch — achievement is what really matters and, like it or not, the outgoing coalition can point to considerable, once almost unimaginable, achievement.
Ireland as it is in February 2016 was an unimaginable dream in February 2011. Five years ago there were doubts, even if fleeting, that nurses and guards might be paid, that retired teachers or civil servants might get their pensions. Airports were choked with young, and not so young, people bidding farewell to heartbroken parents or wives and children. Jobs fell like autumn leaves. Tens of thousands of people were trapped servicing mortgages that had been made unsustainable and even if that crisis has not been settled progress has been made towards resolving it — but much more must be done. Optimism was, in early 2011, truly a scarce resource.
The situation, exacerbated by fears that the euro might collapse, that we’d sink with others mocked as the PIIGS economies, or that we might be expelled from the currency, was so dire that many of us block out the memory but that won’t change the facts around what has been a truly remarkable recovery — even if it has yet to reach every corner of the country. The outgoing Government has shown it can manage the economy, that it can be trusted with the family silver even if that performance has been undermined by the ease with which it embraced auction electioneering and promised unwise tax cuts. That wonderful achievement is a two-sided coin and the Government must accept criticism too.
An unprecedented mandate for reform was squandered and many public services are far less than they should be and offer pretty poor value for the huge investment made by taxpayers. The health service, that unnavigable dreadnought ploughing through Irish life, epitomises this. Minister after minister, administration after administration have thrown the heavy cavalry at this behemoth but reform has, at best, been unspectacular. It is hard to see how this Gordian knot can be untangled without an all-party commitment to agreed reforms as every other approach has failed. Unless we can take the politics out of this issue we seem condemned to permanent failure and chaotic hospitals. The housing crisis, an indictment of us all, demands the same approach.
The introduction of a justified water charge — and to a lesser extent the property tax — was a disaster but that project has the virtue of highlighting how very preposterous claims from the left that water is free are and that they will scrap the charges and the agency established to renew water infrastructure. Mr Kenny’s refusal to consider a vote securing public ownership of Irish Water was a mistake, one that provoked considerable suspicion.
This administration has shown competence and stability unimaginable in most of the alternatives being advanced, especially the independent-rich ones. It deserves, even if dependent on a blushing Fianna Fáil reluctantly following the diktats of the ballot box, an opportunity to continue its work and, almost most of all, return reenergised to the reforms now even more urgent than they were five years ago.