The desire for real change expressed by the people should be the main focus in the formation of a new government rather than a narrow discussion around personalities and party interests.
The electorate rejected the Coalition because it failed to deliver a social recovery alongside the return to economic growth. The scandal of 1,500 children in emergency homeless accommodation, the hospital waiting lists and trolley crisis, the increase in poverty (a third of children suffer deprivation) mattered to people.
The Government failed to appreciate the impact of their cuts to community development projects, Leader programmes and local health services on small rural towns, vulnerable groups and disadvantaged communities in the big cities. At its most fundamental level, the Government was punished for failing to listen to the people, on the water issue most noteably.
People have voted for society to be given as much priority as the economy. They have voted for a fair and equal Ireland which has high quality public services. This represents a significant shift in the political value base of voters. They have moved to being largely of a ‘centre left’ outlook. This results from the harsh lessons learned through the boom and bust of the Celtic Tiger, the crisis and austerity.
People realise that public services such as healthcare, housing, education, social and community services, mental health services and childcare are essential to provide for a decent standard of living for people. They are pointing out that things like poverty, inequality, and homelessness, for instance, are always a case of political choices and priorities about where resources are placed. They realise the choice to cut taxes such as the USC will result in a worse housing crisis, and reduced funding available for essential public services. That’s why the promises of tax and USC cuts did not resonate with people.
Fianna Fáil understood this and explicitly made the case for investing in public services over tax cuts. They presented a centre Left campaign during the election.
Micheál Martin, repeated over and over that Fianna Fáil stood for addressing homelessness, the hospital trolley waiting lists, for looking after lower- and middle-income earners and essentially prioritising the creation of a “fair Ireland for all”. This is a core reason for why Fianna Fáil improved their vote.
Fianna Fáil tracked left and in a way, took on the policy ‘clothes’ of left. This means that Fianna Fáil now face the same dilemma that Labour faced after the last election. Those who voted for Fianna Fáil for them to achieve social justice and a fairer Ireland will not look kindly on a failure to achieve these.
Labour failed to sufficiently prioritise social justice and the vulnerable and their voters left them as a result. Fianna Fáil should learn this lesson — implement the promised policies or you will pay the price at the next election.
The election also saw the impact of the water movement which provided a base for the Right2Change parties and independents to grow. This includes Sinn Féin, the ‘new’ political Left independents and PBP-AAA .
The Green Party also got two seats while the Social Democrats got three seats. Combined, these parties secured around 23% of first preference votes and will have at least 35 TDs.
There is an onus on this block of broad left TDs to come together and put forward a coherent policy alternative that could achieve an Ireland of social justice and equality. This growth in this new Left represents one of the most significant changes in this election.
The Left politics of these parties and independent TDs is very different to the Left politics of the Labour Party. Labour has always seen itself as limited to being a minority partner in a government dominated by one of the more conservative parties of Fianna Fail or Fine Gael.
Most of this new Left however are much more ambitious and will not just go in as a minority partner. They see that a broad Left government while is not possible after this election could be a prospect in subsequent elections if they provide an effective opposition to a Fianna Fail/Fine Gael government.
They also know they will be held to account for their decisions by the water movement and indeed they support a more active citizenship and are likely to support further protests around the water and housing issues.
Finally, the election marks the end of the civil war political landscape. The establishment parties (Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour) received their lowest combined support in the history of the state. In the 1990s the three parties received over 80% of the first preference vote.
In this election their combined vote collapsed to 56%. People have opted for independents of all political persuasions as they no longer trust the big parties. Whatever new government is formed should involve these new voices — the independents and the left — and find new ways of governing to integrate their policy concerns.
Election 2016 sees a continuation of the political transformation that started in 2011, continued through the 2014 local elections, and the water protests. This mood for change is likely to further reshape the Irish political landscape and society in the coming years.