Irish Examiner View: Sinn Féin tops poll - Inequities feed hunger for change

One of the mantras — more a well-considered muddying of the waters — of the Troubles, and of the years that immediately followed those decades of carnage, was that “there can be no hierarchy of victims”.

One of the mantras — more a well-considered muddying of the waters — of the Troubles, and of the years that immediately followed those decades of carnage, was that “there can be no hierarchy of victims”.

The phrase was unquestioned, despite its obvious flaws. It helped drive the evolution that, according to an Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll, has made Sinn Féin the most popular party in this Republic. Just days before our election, that poll put SF on 25%, Fianna Fáil on 23%, and Fine Gael third on 20%.

Though this hierarchy is clear enough, the margins are still in the many-a-slip-between-cup-and-lip category, especially as SF remains the party that, according to the poll, most voters do not want to see in government. However, the poll is an undeniable demand for real change.

Whether you subscribe to the hierarchy-of-victims theory or not, this poll makes it clear that a hierarchy of experiences is in play.

A good proportion of the generation who imagine that Freddie Scappaticci might have been a sharp 1970s AC Milan midfielder, or that Slab Murphy was a paving contractor, is justifiably focused on how centre-right parties have facilitated regression and, at the same time, on the stasis that has significantly diminished their quality of life and possibilities.

For all the great attractions of Irish life, the economic challenges epitomised by crushing housing and childcare costs, which are grinding so many young families, are overwhelming and life-draining. Who has the energy or time to reflect on the Kingsmill massacre, when housing and childcare bills consume the greatest share of two decent incomes?

Earlier generations, or a good proportion of them, will be concerned that the Armalite and ballot-box strategy, after more than 40 years of patient application, may be about to reap the penultimate dividend.

Kingsmill may not be a fresh memory for them, but it has not slipped far enough into the fog of amnesia to embrace the poll findings with enthusiasm, either.

That, however, no matter how fair or real, no matter how challenging, may be the wrong equation. As the atrocities of 50, 40, or even 30 years ago begin to take on a sepia tint, even for those who lived through them, today’s issues move centre stage.

They bring with them the most obvious question and censure — how did we get to this point?

It is time for the parties that (in their hubris) saw themselves as our natural and permanent government to reflect on how their policies, or, more accurately, their failures, contributed to a situation where they are second and third in an opinion poll literally hours before polling stations open.

The populism, if that is what it is, sweeping Western democracies offered many lessons and, as this poll reflects, they were ignored.

The charge sheet is as long as it is obvious, but it might be reduced to a simple idea: The preservation of privilege.

There is hardly a live social issue that could not be more easily resolved if we reordered our priorities and put the common good even slightly ahead of the shackles we call property rights. Report after report (one, the Kenny Report, now gathering dust almost half-a-century), had it been implemented, might have averted the housing crisis and all the socially destructive collateral damage it brings. If the memory of Kingsmill lingers, so does the bitter memory of how the bankers who caused the chaos we are still paying for escaped without sanction.

Climate change and the crisis in health, too, are consequences of hierarchies built on institutionalised inequality. In today’s terms, any viable party, not just SF, offering an alternative would attract growing support.

Despite all that, the opinion poll is just that and opinions may shift after last night’s leaders’ debate. Irrespective, any party that imagines business as usual is still possible is part of the problem, rather than the solution.

As the poll underlines, change may come dripping slowly, but it is coming. Who might lead it is, however, still uncertain.

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