All parties in the south are now in election mode. Selection conventions are beginning to take place across the state. There is a scramble particularly by independents to tap into the mood for change and to benefit from the disillusionment of the public with the establishment parties. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are grappling with the growing possibility that they may end up going into coalition together. They do not want to see Sinn Féin in Government but neither do they want to see the party as the main party of opposition. It is no longer a question of if Sinn Féin will be in government – it is a question of when.
The political landscape is unrecognisable from the stagnation of the last decade or the decades that preceded it. The dominance of Irish politics by two big parties is gone.
For the first time voters can see that it is realistic to elect a government that is not led by Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. The significance of this change cannot be underestimated. Politics no longer has to be about voting for the least worst option. That is a seismic change in Irish politics and opens up the possibility of engaging the many citizens who have opted out altogether through cynicism and disillusionment.
The opportunity exists to sweep away an establishment that has been immune from many of the hardships experienced by the average citizen over recent years – an establishment with little understanding or empathy for patients struggling to access healthcare in a system in crisis, with workers coping with zero hours contracts or with parents whose children have left for Toronto and Sydney.
What has brought voters to this point can be traced not only to the austerity of recent years and economic mismanagement and speculative euphoria of the Bertie Ahern era but to the cronyism and corruption that characterised Irish politics in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Many voters have simply had enough. The pressure of job losses, falling wages, emigration, the property tax, and finally the new water charges have pushed voters to break with traditional voting patterns. Fianna Fáil, which recovered in every other period out of government since is foundation, is in the words of its Galway West TD Eamon O Cuiv going nowhere.
The very future of the Irish Labour party is on the line as it looks set to pay the price for embracing and aggressively pursuing austerity.
During the Claire Byrne Live debate on RTE 1 television on Monday night two women in the audience challenged Irish Labour Party Leader and Tánaiste Joan Burton on changes to lone parents supports introduced by her as Minister for Social Protection. They also challenged her on the failure to match these changes with action to make childcare affordable for those in low paid employment. They were speaking in the context of the Irish state having one the highest childcare costs in Europe according to Eurostat figures released last year and the failure of successive governments to do anything of any substance to address the issue.
When they asked Burton what they were supposed to do given no action has been taken to make childcare affordable or to tackle low pay the Tánaiste turned to them and told them to “get a job”. .
The comments were reminiscent of Norman Tebbitt’s remark that the unemployed of 1980’s Britain should get on their bikes and find work. What made the exchange really remarkable was that this was the leader of the Irish Labour party talking to what would have been seen as a key demographic target group for the Labour party. Indeed one of the women acknowledged that she had voted for Labour in 2011. The exchange demonstrated once again that the Labour Party is out of touch with potential voters and their key concerns, including the costs of childcare, and the plight of the working poor. In her comments Joan Burton gave weight to the accusation made during the debate by Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams that Labour had in fact become more like Fine Gael than Fine Gael themselves.
Underlying the momentum for change is both a sense that the establishment parties are out of touch and a strong view that neither the current government nor the previous Fianna Fáil led government stood up for Irish interests in Europe. The capitulation to the ECB in 2008 and the failure to fight for retrospective recapitalisation since the current government took office causes real anger for people who are living with the consequences of those failures. Even those who would not be natural supporters of Syriza look enviously at the decision of the Greek people to elect a government that will stand up for their interests.
In looking towards the general election, which will happen in April 2016 at the latest, the question remains whether those most affected by the cuts and austerity of recent years can see that there is hope for change and that their vote really does matter.
If those committed to change can motivate young people, hard pressed families and the unemployed to vote in large numbers the make-up of the Dáil after the next election will be dramatically different. For many the resurgence of the left in Greece and in Spain as well as the success of the SNP in Scotland will be an inspiration. They see in these countries the rise of parties that are willing to stand up for national interest and stand up for ordinary people.