WAS this the real democratic revolution? Definately, maybe.
Five years ago, we were told that the country had undergone a “democratic revolution” with the election of a Fine Gael/Labour government, and the near destruction of Fianna Fáil.
It turned out to be little more than a changing of the guard. Out went one set of managers, in came another. A little tinkering with the engine of the economy, a few nuanced changes in society, and it was as you were.
On Friday last, another transformative election occurred. The people, as expressed through the electorate, revolted against the politics of the last five years.
Since the result became clear, it has been propagated far and wide that it represented a complete rejection of politics as practiced since the foundation of the state. The evidence for such a conclusion remains scant.
All that can be conclusively agreed is that the electorate has rejected the outgoing government. Over the weekend, many in Fine Gael and Labour have been reflecting that the people appeared to have shown precious little regard for all that had been done for the good of the country over the last five years.
Labour’s Michael McCarthy, who lost his seat in Cork South West, told RTÉ Radio that Labour had put the country first. He didn’t add “and this is the thanks we get”, but his tone said just that.
The reality is that the coalition parties are reaping what they sowed. Five years ago they told the country that there was an easier, fairer way to tackle the economic catastrophe that had befallen the state. And then they carried on where Fianna Fáil had left off.
One mistake that the two coalition parties committed was that they believed that Fianna Fáil was nearly destroyed because they had wrecked the economy. In reality, the huge migration of votes from the Soldiers of Destiny was down to the austerity measures that were already under way in attempting to right the wrongs that the party had done. (The Greens were collateral damage in that election.)
Now it would appear that many of those votes borrowed from Fianna Fáil, after Phil Hogan’s plea, simply returned to the mothership.
The major shift in votes was actually away from Labour to other parties of the left and particularly towards independents. Does this represent a major realignment of politics?
Fine Gael’s main problem in attempting to have the outgoing coalition re-elected in some form was that it completely misjudged the electorate, and conducted a campaign of breathtaking incompetence. This was where Fianna Fáil’s corporate memory of fighting elections came into play.
Late last year the party used its available funds to research what exactly the electorate wanted. The result that came back was an improvement in services.
So while the Fine Gael whizzkids looked across the Irish Sea at the Tories to discern how best to fight the election, its civil war rival at home set about fashioning a battle plan that placed far greater emphasis on improving services rather than reverting to its previous tried and tested modus operandi of throwing tax cuts at one and all.
Fine Gael, by contrast, looked back to the halcyon days of Bertie Ahern and decided that ultimately tax cuts will always win the day. This view was reinforced by the results of focus group research which suggested that the USC was the most hated tax in the country.
Maybe so, but an electorate traumatised by eight years of austerity was re- adjusting its priorities.
Perhaps the focus groups were too narrowly focused. In order to replace Fianna Fáil as a natural catch-all party, the Blueshirts, it would appear, were too restrictive with whom they consulted.
Throw in an incompetent campaign and the return to Fianna Fáil of Hogan’s borrowed votes was inevitable.
The main problem for the two biggest parties is that the arithmetic now dictates that the only apparently viable government consists of a coming together. While this does represent a major departure in Irish politics, it is not down to a serious shift to the left by the electorate.
The prevailing scenario, however, does open up the possibility of a realignment of politics along the natural divide of left and right. But wherefore the left?
In reality, there are now three distinct blocks in politics, excluding the large number of independents who are ideologically relatively neutral. The centre right contains the two biggest parties. The centre left is represented by the likes of Labour, the Social Democrats and the Greens. The radical left is nearly exclusively corralled with the Right2Change movement.
The difference between the centre right and centre left blocks is far less than that between the latter and the radical left.
All of which brings us to Sinn Féin, the biggest party on the left, although some argue that its ideological compass is more directed towards nationalism than positioning on the socioeconomic spectrum.
Sinn Féin is aligned to Right2Change, but its policies and performance in various forums of government place it as centre left. What’s radical about the Shinners’ performance in the Northern Executive, or in local authorities, such as Dublin City Council, where it is the largest party?
So much for the great realignment. Yet, if Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael do actually get around to coalescing, there will be scope for much debate on what an opposition movement should look like.
By far the biggest message to emerge from the results is simply that people are no longer willing to just go along with politics as usual. All four of the main parties will have plenty to chew on after an election in which a greater number of votes than ever before has gone to independents.
It’s as if large tracts have decided to retreat back to their communities to pick a local representative in frustration at how politics is conducted. If those who eventually form a government have any respect at all for the result it will incumbent on them to begin finding a new way to do their business.
The first item on the agenda should be the abolition of a system in the Dáil whereby the executive has complete control over how it operates.