Swapping one shade of austerity for another

Yes, Ireland’s party of government was booted out, but the election was far from ‘truly historic’.

Jason Walsh

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The Irish electorate has spoken, decimating the governing Fianna Fáil party and completely wiping out its former coalition partners, the Green Party. But triumphant claims that we have seen an ‘end to civil-war politics’ miss the point. If we in Ireland want a real future, we have to state the case for it.

Momentous, game-changing, a democratic revolution – just some of the entirely untrue words that have been spoken about Ireland’s change of government this week.

With its economy devastated, the public finances €85 billion in hock to the European Union and International Monetary Fund and young people fleeing Ireland at a rate of over 1,000 a week, it is no surprise that a general election saw a change in government. What matters, though, is not the fact that Ireland’s thud and blunder rulers were given the boot, but the question of what comes next – and this election does not provide an answer to that.

It would be folly to entirely write off the 2011 Irish election, but not because it was ‘the most significant election in the history of Ireland’, as pundits and politicians kept reminding us. No, what is significant is the collapse in support for the party that has governed Ireland throughout most of its history.

It is without question satisfying to see the electorate deliver a kicking to the party that presided over Ireland’s economic collapse and, more immediately, two of the harshest austerity budgets in history and a baffling EU-IMF ‘bailout’ that sees Ireland’s zombie banks endlessly propped-up. The election result itself, though, is certainly nothing worth celebrating. But, equally, it doesn’t mark the beginning of the end for anyone whose idea of politics is broader than how much tax they pay.

The leading party is the centre right Fine Gael, which with 76 seats is just seven short of an overall majority. Labour came in second with 37; Fianna Fáil was humiliated, dropping from 77 to 20 and Sinn Féin is up from five to 14. The nebulous category of ‘independents and others’ won 19.

Fine Gael and Labour have both claimed victory, Fine Gael for winning the most seats and Labour for, well, winning more than usual. Indeed, both parties got their highest ever share of the vote. But that doesn’t mean that Ireland is now on the road to recovery – or that some new vision has taken hold.

While a few of the ‘independents and others’ did represent principled politics from both ends of the political spectrum, the fact that 233 ‘others’ where standing in the election (202 of them independents) itself indicates a fracturing of political meaning.

It is also fair to say that the vast majority of the independents represented nothing so much as the coalescing of a confused, anti-political sentiment. Candidates such as Dylan Haskins and Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan, the former a policy-free 23-year-old hipster arguing for an arts-council economy and the latter a cannabis campaigner turned county councillor, vied with the usual rogues’ gallery of localists and one-eyed crazies for the ‘I-don’t-like-politicians’ vote.

Mounting concerns about Fine Gael governing as a right-wing party, red in tooth and claw, ignore one enormous – and obvious – fact: in order for there to a reinvigorated right, there would actually have to be a clash of ideas, something that has been entirely absent from Irish politics for at least two decades. Fine Gael is certainly a conservative party, but that doesn’t mean it would lead a right-wing government even if it was capable of doing so (and without an overall majority, it isn’t). Free of ideas, Fine Gael will – as it always has in the past – prove itself to be Continuity Fianna Fáil rather than Milton Friedman and the Prole Bashers.

In fact, most of the complaints about Fine Gael’s pyrrhic victory are from urban sophisticates appalled by the party’s déclassé and supposedly grasping supporters. Many of these self-same people, of course, also complained when the party furthest to the traditional left of Ireland’s mainstream parties, Sinn Féin, also polled well. It seems that between the rural conservatives of Fine Gael and the urban republicanism of Sinn Féin, the Irish electorate isn’t 2.0 enough for the social media-using classes.

And yet, Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny is being portrayed in the press as a kind of Thatcherite figure who plans to slash and burn his way across Irish society. Well, maybe, but there is an all-party consensus in favour of cuts that includes the outgoing Fianna Fáil and Greens – as well as the loveable Labour party. So while it’s true that Fine Gael has pledged to cut 30,000 public jobs, Labour has said it will cut 18,000, too. On this and on virtually any other issue you could care to mention, the only difference between the parties is a matter of degree. Besides, when they finally negotiate a coalition they can just split the difference – Ireland is far more likely to go Dutch than go Belgian (which is to say, not actually form a government at all).

Arguments about how wonderful or awful the Enda siècle will be are beside the point. Fine Gael won the election because, in the rush to bury Fianna Fáil, no-one bothered to put forward any kind of vision for the future. Kenny campaigned on a ‘five point plan’ for recovery, but in the absence of any new ideas each point may as well have been ‘we’re not Fianna Fáil’.

Both Labour and Fine Gael claimed to oppose the finance bill that passed the EU-IMF loan into law and the harsh austerity measures required to pay it back. In fact, they eased its passage through the parliament and only voted against it once it became clear that Fianna Fáil had enough votes to push it through. This act of duplicity neatly encapsulates the void at the heart of Irish politics today.

Yes, the economy may have been discussed endlessly. Yet no serious thought was given to how the country might build a productive, broad-based economy that would once again raise living standards. Instead we were treated to the spectre of bald men fighting over a comb as political parties vied to push their pet parts of the omni-austerity programme on a deflated and demoralised public, all the while telling us that we weren’t going to like this but it was, of course, necessary.

What is not necessary, apparently, is trying to build a new politics that can get to grips with any of the really big issues at stake today, in Ireland as abroad.

Jason Walsh is a journalist based in Dublin.

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