Voters observed that Fine Gael abandoned its foundational values, based on supporting families and fairness, while Labour ditched the ethos of solidarity with working people
The outcome of the local council and EU Parliament elections demonstrated just how far the Coalition partners had become detached from the day-to-day experiences of families and, also, from their own foundational values.
The immediate response to the results equally showed how little they have learned. The Labour Party stated that: “The Irish people have sent the Government and the Labour Party a message…” Really?
Does the Government really need to be sent a message about what has been happening to living standards and to public services across the country: the scale of emigration, the dreadful legacy of long-term unemployment and the impact of cutbacks in healthcare and education?
The old stock alibis won’t work:
‘We’ve taken the hard decisions’. No. They were the wrong decisions.
‘We didn’t communicate our policies’ — well, the six austerity budgets gave the Coalition plenty of scope to ‘communicate’.
‘The country was bankrupt’ — so you put more than $17bn from the National Pension Reserve Fund into a malign ‘bailout’, skewed towards the interests of those who contributed to the crisis in the first place.
The medical card shambles is, as the feature in the Irish Examiner last Friday demonstrated, a potent symbol of the insensitivity of policy and the arbitrary manner in which cards have been removed. What makes this worse is the ‘retrospective spin’ by government — featured in that same article — as the medical card debacle continued to unfold.
The medical card shambles was a flawed and arbitrary process, based on ‘Management by Press Release’, long after the damage had been done. It was a metaphor for the wider health system. It was a pity more attention wasn’t paid to the press release of the heads of four Dublin hospitals, who publicly warned about the threat to patient safety, of what was happening, and continues to happen, in hospitals around the country. And these pressures have been driven by the troika.
Voters have observed the deference to overseas interests who contributed to the banking crisis, against the background of the escalating number of orders for repossession of Irish homes. The acquiescence by the Coalition in ‘troikanomics’ — a blinkered and short-sighted strategy criticised many times in this column — is the reason for their rejection by the electorate. It is at the heart of the breakdown in public trust in mainstream party politics. Instead, voters have turned to Sinn Féin and to Independents.
The political system itself is skewed in favour of established parties, making it very difficult for new entrants with fresh ideas. The result of this is that shifts in the percentage support for these parties do not necessarily reflect anything other than a lesser dislike of one, compared with the other. Hence the relative performance of the two members — Labour compared with Fine Gael — of the Coalition.
It would be a great mistake to dismiss the increased support for Independents as simply a ‘protest vote’. The contribution of Independents, such as the late Tony Gregory, to value-based community politics can hardly be overstated.
Long serving and hard-working MEPs stood for re-election this time around. The growth in support for Independents is not alone a reaction against hegemony of the ‘old politics’ which young adults, in particular, do not understand — because they have no way of knowing what they stand for, other than power. It is, more importantly, a statement about the loss of trust in mainstream politics.
Voters observed, up close and personal, what happens to individual TDs of real ability and principle when they voted with their conscience on the Coalition’s Abortion Act. It sent a message: this Government will not tolerate individuals who think for themselves and dissent from ‘The Party Line’. This message was further reinforced by the Coalition’s effort to consolidate political control by abolishing the quasi-independent Seanad. It is not so easy to push around Independents and threaten grown-up legislators with the Party Whip system.
Voters observed that Fine Gael abandoned its foundational values, based on supporting families and fairness, while the Labour Party ditched the ethos of solidarity with working people struggling to make ends meet. Voters could not understand how Labour would enact the procession of cuts and charges on families and the self-employed. What they also saw was how both parties acquiesced in a deeply flawed ‘adjustment process’ that delivered a reduction in the fiscal deficit but at a terrible cost, including an ongoing debt burden that will stifle growth for the next two generations.
It is two years until the next scheduled General Election. This is too long for people numbed by austerity and a ‘recovery’ about which they read but have not experienced. It is hardly long enough for a Coalition that is in office but has lost any claim to legitimacy to truly re-engage with their foundational values.
There are three priorities for whatever new political consensus emerges from the radically different political landscape. Firstly, demand from the eurozone establishment a €60bn debt write-off. There is broad consensus among international economists that such a write off is justified and appropriate. Peter Mathews TD, perhaps Fine Gael’s most qualified and professionally experienced banking expert, has continually made this point. But, of course, he was expelled from his party (and from the Banking Inquiry) for having a mind of his own.
The Coalition simply hasn’t got the debt-write off message. It is now too divided and jaded — too cosy with ‘our friends and partners’ in the eurozone — to deliver the demand for a write-off with any conviction. Independents and Sinn Féin are unlikely to be similarly inhibited.
The second is this: both Fine Gael and Labour have been willing, in the interest of power, to ditch their traditional values. At a time when the focus of Government should have been on the economy, they engaged in a damaging, divisive and wholly unnecessary campaign to legislate for abortion on the X case. For anyone who actually took the trouble to read the ECJ judgement on the ABC cases — or who listened to the informed views of the medical and psychiatric evidence — this was an exercise in ideological ‘power broking’ and one that the country could ill-afford.
Their proper responsibility was to support families, struggling with the consequences of six regressive austerity budgets and cutbacks in services and supports that hit primarily those on the outside — including single parents and the homeless.
Later in this year the Coalition will be at the same crack; pushing the same ideology and pressing for changes in the Constitutional status of marriage and the natural rights of children to a mother and a father. This would be bizarre to traditional Fine Gael.
In fact, the fundamental freedoms that every citizen have are not the gift of governments; they are the result of the courage of individuals from outside of the establishment, people like Raymond Crotty, Patricia McKenna, Mark McCrystal, and Kathy Synott; individuals who were brave enough to go to the Supreme Court to vindicate these freedoms and to hold government to account, over and over again. This should encourage ‘new democrats’ because the research shows that the integrity of public institutions is fundamental to growth and development.
The third challenge for the emerging political forces is to get their head around how best to adapt the Irish economy to an external environment that is heavy with risk. The EU, and particularly the eurozone, is mired in financial repression. Forecasts for growth continually fall short of outcomes. Any momentum rests on the assertion two years ago by Mario Draghi that the ECB would ‘do what it takes’ — when, in fact, Mr Draghi had no mandate to make such a pledge. In the markets, sovereign spreads have declined — but it will take something more than an adventurous pledge to sustain economies mired in sovereign debt There are also significant risks, including political risks and a ‘liquidity trap’ stymieing monetary policy.
The Coalition’s post-bailout strategy, published earlier this year, is simply not robust to these challenges. That is why securing debt write-off is absolutely central in the new political consensus.
In the run-up to 2016 (if the Coalition lasts that long) an emerging values-based ‘new coalition’, to counter the old failed orthodoxy, may have to be built. Such a grouping is now likely to comprise of Sinn Féin, a ‘new’ Fianna Fáil — and a much stronger and more assertive group of Independent TDs. They should begin their dialogue with the eurozone establishment by declaring that they would like our country back.
* Ray Kinsella is professor of banking and finance in the Michael Smurfit Graduate School of Business, UCD.
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