Monday, December 03, 2012

Has the Irish Electorate Given Up on Governance?

Nate Silver’s triumph of the number-cruncher's art in the US Presidential election last month makes everyone interested in politics look on polls with a more gimlet eye, but even the great Silver himself would wear out the keys on his calculator trying to parse what’s going to happen in Ireland come the next election. The prospect of a look at one of the Minister for Health’s famous logarithms would be a source of delight to any statistician of course, but the rest would be pretty much bedlam, everywhere Silver looked.

The Sunday Business Post released a poll yesterday that saw Fine Gael support crumble, Fianna Fáil continue their slow (but inexorable) rise, and support flock to the Independents. There has been speculation that the fall in Fine Gael support arises from the horrors of the Savita Halappanavar case, but that doesn’t quite fit the case.

Like the rest of the parties, Fine Gael are split on the issue of abortion. The extent of the split depends on just what legislation is proposed, and it seems a leap to say that the fall in Fine Gael support is because of Fine Gael’s position on abortion. They don’t have a position – that’s the point. Some of them shilly, some of them shally, but there is no one Fine Gael position on the issue. We have to look further to find out why Fine Gael have lost support.

One extraordinary thing about the poll, and about the current Dáil, is strength of support of the Independents. It’s extraordinary for this reason – a vote for an Independent in the current situation is a vote for something other than governance.

Which means that when a voter votes for an Independent, she is not voting for a government. She has prioritized something else above governance. What that something is depends on the individual candidate. Is there a commonality at all between Shane Ross, Mattie McGrath and Mick Wallace? It’s hard to see it.

The Independents currently in the Dáil may be understood as loosely left, but that doesn’t sum up them all. You couldn’t accuse Mr Michael Lowry, Independent TD for Tipperary North, of being anti-business, for instance. So even though we group Independents together for convenience, what defines them is what they’re not rather than what they are. As a collective, they’re all over the spectrum.

But what is interesting is that the Independent voter has decided that governance is secondary, and that’s significant and worrying. All politics is local, as Tip O’Neill liked to remark, but the question now arises if Irish politics crossed a Rubicon where voters have given up on the idea of governance entirely?

We heard a lot before the election about how Ireland had lost her sovereignty because of the bank bailout. Did the voters believe it? Is that the evidence of the current Dáil and, on the evidence of current polling, the next?

Has the Irish nation now given up completely on the idea of an independent Irish parliament that legislates for an independent Irish nation? Pat Rabbitte was eager to tell Claire Byrne on Saturday that the Government must absolutely do what the Troika tells them. Is the nation taking the Minister at his word, and deciding that, if they can’t have a government, maybe they can have someone to kick up a fuss when their local hospital is closed or when the rats overrun the local school? Does the nation settle for a TD who will fight for the parish, and isn’t that fussed about who’s Taoiseach because who’s Taoiseach doesn’t really matter at all?

If this week’s budget passes – and the many leaks that have occurred suggest that the Government is determined to test the water, just in case – Ireland will have completed 85% of the Austerity Program. It’s stung and will sting for some time yet, but there haven’t been any Morgan Kelly style riots in the streets. Ireland has taken her medicine.

So the question then is will Ireland return to electing governments once the Troika have moved on and normality is restored, or is faith in the system broken forever? Or, even more worrying, what if the whole thing has all been a cod?

Just how sovereign was Ireland, really? How much can a country with few indigenous resources and that is heavily reliant on foreign investment – the majority of which is still from the former colonial ruler, ninety years after independence – ever be truly “free”?