Friday, May 30, 2014

Irish Politics - Leaning Left, or Keeling Over?

First published in the Western People on Monday.

There’s nothing like seeing ourselves as others see us to find out who we really are. As such, the New York Times’ report on Saturday evening about our elections is particularly interesting.

“Ireland has taken a decisive step to the left in local and European elections,” reported the New York Times, going on to say “early returns on Saturday showed that the big winners were Sinn Féin, formerly the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, and Socialist independent candidates.”

And when you read that you have to suddenly stop and say: is that what we’ve just done? Is that what’s going on here? Is Ireland, nearly one hundred years after independence, going to have its first-ever left-wing Government come the next general election? Has the wheel turned full circle for Sinn Féin?

Certainly, the fact that Sinn Féin is less and less toxic to the electorate with each passing election is clear as a bell. But it does not necessarily then follow that Leo Varadkar is correct when he suggested on Saturday that the next general election will be a two-horse race between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin. There are more tea-leaves swirling around than that.

Equally, the rise of the socialist independents isn’t entirely robust as a theory. Catherine Murphy and John Halligan, both late of the Workers’ Party and both current Technical Group TDs, welcomed the rise of the independents on RTÉ as if it had something to do with them. But does it have something to do with them? Is there a red tide rising in Ireland, or is something else going on?

The success of Murphy and Halligan’s fellow Technical Group TD and future MEP if press-time polling is to trusted, Luke “Ming” Flanagan, is the most spectacular result of the election. But Ming isn’t like any other politician – the national media likes to group him with Mick Wallace and Clare Daly, but Ming is infinitely smarter than Wallace and not as ideologically tied up as Daly.

Luke Flanagan’s campaign was a textbook example of how to get elected in modern-day Ireland. He didn’t put a foot wrong in any of it. Flanagan spent the first week or ten days of the election running in the five and ten kilometre races that are all over the country now. Why? Flanagan’s biggest image problem in this constituency is that he’s a good-for-nothing layabout stoner, and he conquered that immediately by running the races and proving himself healthy as a trout. Genius.

Flanagan’s second, and no less inspired, tactic in the campaign was to loosely ally with other independents who were running in the locals. They got a slice of Flanagan’s charisma, of which he has buckets, while he got his leaflets distributed.

What was that worth? Think of it this way. On his Facebook page on April 16th, Flanagan thanked an independent candidate in Athlone for taking seven thousand leaflets to distribute. You know those bales of paper that you can buy in the supermarket for your printer at home? Seven thousand leaflets is fourteen of those bales, and would cost €4,200 to post. Genius.

But is Ming the exception or the rule? Did people vote for Luke Flanagan because he’s perceived as left-wing, or because they can’t help but like the man? Did people vote for Sinn Féin because Sinn Féin are left wing or because the anniversary of the 1916 Rising, the source and origin of the state itself, is looming and Sinn Féin seems to be the only party that wants to celebrate it, rather than hide it in some bizarre stew that also includes Passchendaele, Ypres and the sinking of the Lusitania?

It got very little coverage overall because it was a skirmish on the side of the great battles of the local and European elections, but the real soul of Irish politics could be seen in the Longford-Westmeath by-election. There were nine candidates on the ballot, of whom eight were from Westmeath and just one from Longford.

That single Longford candidate, an independent (of course) called James Morgan, entered the race late on a platform of “A Vote for Morgan is a Vote for Longford.” He polled 5,959 votes on the first count, of which 5,900 are unlikely to have come from Westmeath.

And that’s Irish politics in the nutshell. We pretend elections are about issues, but they’re not. Not really. Left/right, pro/anti Europe don’t matter a hill of beans. Irish elections are about defending the home patch because the entire culture has been set up that way for generations.

For the people of Longford to have put merit over geography is like the unilateral disarmament theory during the cold war. It seems noble, but you’re only inviting someone who isn’t noble to blow you away to Hell. Everything about the Irish system of elections is set up to ensure the continuance of this parish pump culture, where the back yard is more important than the nation.

Why are chronically ill children being denied medical cards? Why has something terribly rotten at the heart of the Garda Síochána been allowed to fester unchecked? Why will we be paying for water that we can’t even see through, to say nothing of drink?

Because the Irish political system makes fighting over whether Ballyglenna or Ballyknock loses its post office more important than the health of the nation’s children, the policing of the state, or access to clean water.

Is Ireland leaning to the left? Only insofar as we’ve decided to chase our own tails anti-clockwise for a change. Above anything else, Ireland needs reform of its political culture to elect a new type of politician and bury civil war politics for once and for all. It then needs comprehensive public service reform so it can raise sufficient taxes to protect the vulnerable, something it cannot do currently in the culture of wanton waste.

It will take twenty-five or thirty years for these things to come to pass. But until they do, until we have a functional democratic system instead of one ruled by clientelism, favoritism and nepotism, all the blood shed for Irish freedom will have been shed for nothing. Every precious drop of it.