Tuesday, February 04, 2020

What Are, Aren't, and Should Be Major Issues in the Election

Saturday will be, we are told, a "change" election, after which things will never be the same again. This is not the country’s first "change" election. The post-bailout 2011 election was a change election. So was the 1997 Deep Bertie election, and the Spring Tide election of 1992, and the Rise of the PDs in 1987. We could go on back to the 1920s, always finding the repeating pattern of things changing in order that they may remain the same, like in that Italian novel.

The PDs won fourteen seats in 1987. The Labour Party won more than twice as many in 1992. Those are historical elections now; is it possible that it is the children of those who voted PD in 1987 and Labour in 1992 who are now going to vote Green and/or Sinn Féin?

For a country that so enjoys an election, we seem unusually poor at documenting and/or analysing our politics. Why have we had so many change elections in the past thirty years?

Some people are claiming that that the Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael duopoly is finally over. They said that in 1987 too. Like the life of novelist Mark Twain or the fate of the Irish language, reports of the duopoly’s demise have been premature before.

Why, though? Why is that? Why are there these sudden lurches among the electorate, from the right-wing PDs to the softish-left social democrats of Labour to the – to borrow a phrase from Seán Lemass about the origins of his own party – slightly-constitutional Shinners?

Don’t forget, there is nobody more surprised at this Shinner surge – if it is a surge, and not another false dawn – than the Shinners themselves. Up until ten days ago, Sinn Féin were about consolidating the seats they hold, and trying to shore up leaks. Now they’re getting their ears boxed in the media for not running enough candidates, when one month ago it looked like they might be running too many.

It’s a cliche of politics to talk about a gap between the elected and the elected, between the people and the elite. But my goodness, we had a Dáil declaring a climate emergency at the same time as rural Ireland was getting ready to picket meat factories and hold up traffic in Dublin over the destruction of a way of life that some feel the Green Party are only interesting in accelerating.

There used to be a tradition of match-making in Ireland. Were any matched couples such strangers to each other as the current elected and the current electorate?

What even is it that we do when do we go to vote? It’s not something that we really document. The weight of scholarly work on Irish politics seems to have been a series of laments and jeremiads about how awful it was that Irish politics did not operate along a left-right divide, thus shaming Irish academics when they attended conferences (in such socialist states as East Germany, Cuba and the USSR, funnily enough). Would it not have made more sense to document politics as they were, rather than as academics would have had them be?

Are we better at understanding Irish politics now, or worse? Where is the great study, for instance, in the rise of the Independents in recent years? Nineteen independents were elected to the 32nd Dáil. There’s a good chance that number will be higher after Saturday and whenever the Tipperary election is finally held.

What does a vote for an independent say about that independent’s voters’ views on how the country should be governed? Why does a TD who was voted unfit for office by his fellow parliamentarians continue to top the poll in his own constituency?

Whose job is it to tease these issues out? It is the media’s job to tease these issues out. Why don’t the media tease these issues out? The media defence is that these issues are not teased out because the public isn’t interested in teasing them out – that the public likes sausages but cares little about how sausages are made.

To which there are two responses. The first is that distinguishing between the public interest and what the public is interested in is meant to be a cardinal concern of a responsible media, not least when the primary media outlet, RTÉ, is a public-service broadcaster.

The other response is that the media has no problem in the world in featuring issues about which the public could care less, the recent climate emergency business being a case in point. Which is more important? Why not devote even half of the resources devoted to climate issues to electoral reform issues? It doesn’t make sense.

And here’s what makes least sense of all. This is another change election. The most seismic election in the history of this, or any other, state was in 2011.

Fianna Fáil, the party that ruled the state from three of every four years of the state’s existence, went from seventy-one seats to twenty as an outraged and furious electorate blamed them for everything that had gone wrong in the country since the 2008 global financial crash.

And now, nine years later, Fianna Fáil will be back in power. They won’t have seventy-one seats, but they look good for sixty, give or take. How has that happened? Was the crash as bad as it was made out to be? If it wasn’t, why did the people get the impression that it was?

Either the media made fools of themselves by saying the crash was going to be far worse than it was, or else Ireland, that dear little island of green, has pulled off a bigger economic miracle than West Germany pulled off in the 1950s. Which is it? How did it happen? Who is to praise? Who is to blame? And where do I go to read about it?

You may think the answers to these questions – just how bad was the crash? How did we recover? Have we recovered at all, or are we simply on the batter again and there’s an even worse hangover waiting around the turn? - would be front and centre in the election campaign, with politicians and pundits making cases pro and con different interpretations of recent history.

You would be wrong. These have not been issues in the campaign. At all. And it’s going to be change elections all the way to the horizon and the nation going around in ever-decreasing circles until we start asking ourselves these questions, and paying attention to the answers.