We live in a world where fewer journalists chase fewer and fewer stories. The change of Taoiseach just before Christmas has come with a flurry in the southern press chasing a newly refreshed PR initiative from the less-than-shy Leo Varadkar.
The contrast with his predecessor Micheál Martin is stark. Martin’s love of and focus on policy means rather than the press there’s been very little in the media about what has been the most active period in central government in almost a generation.
The Housing For All scheme is set to deliver more houses than the current targets being promised by the opposition. Output should be 24,600 in 2022, 29,000 units this year, and then 33,450 in 2024. By 2030, it sees output at 40,500 units.
The economic crisis has seen a policy vacuum in British Irish relations which has seen disjunctures like Brexit and the governmental breakdown at Stormont. For the first time since 1998 there’s a major new all island(s) initiative.
The economy is set to perform well in 2023 (though GDP growth in 2023 will reduce to 3% from over 10% last year), but the problems the country faces in Health and with housing costs remain chronic and will take a decade or more to put right..
As Anthony Foley notes in the Examiner:
Quick fixes are not available but we can speed up the implementation of solutions to some extent and at least provide some light. The fundamental home truth is that unpleasant decisions will be needed, and taxes will have to be increased, if we are serious about solving our problems.
None of this is new. This is how the country has grown itself, broken itself and fixed itself again for over sixty years. 1966 saw the first significant increase in population since the famine. It has grown annually ever since, even as birth rates have fallen.
These are the capacity problems of handling a better than expected level of successful economic growth, which at the same time must be addressed alongside a promise of a 51% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
With the change of leadership, the media (many of whom never believed Martin could survive the poor 2020 election result) are already speculating about the next election (which, unlike the speculation in that year of Covid) is likely to go to full term.
And as Leo takes back control, the big baddie of Irish politics (or the third rail for anyone who tries to go into government with them) Sinn Féin comes back into view. Interestingly, Martin (who opposed them vehemently in 2020) has not ruled them out.
The sceptic in me suggests that if he wants to grow the appeal of his own party he knows he cannot close down a partnership with a party which according to the polls is far more popular than his own Fianna Fáil (which until recently dwarfed SF).
Being open to future partnerships does not means that this is where this is all going. We’ve seen in the last year the inevitability myth that grew up around a second Trump Whitehouse run hit the sand in the midterms as his favoured candidates bombed.
And closer to home, 2022 saw the demise of the UK’s populist PM (the ‘cake-ist’) Boris Johnson, whom many Westminster insiders believed had broken his opponent’s historic coalition and was as good as home and hosed for the rest of the decade.
Democratic politics was never predictable as it seems in the moment. But electorates have never been as volatile as they are just now. The half life of any pundit’s prediction (never mind any political strategy) is vanishingly small these days.
Political analysis too often falls down an instrumentalist hole of its own making, something that’s been amplified in recent years by an abject dependence on plotting the data points on the two or three regular polls that keep people’s attention topped up.
Often what’s missing is an assessment of politics as a moral spectrum, or a clear understanding the limits of governmental and media power. Prosperity depends not just on sound government policy (or indeed getting out of the way, when required).
It doesn’t help either that the Irish media seem under an impression that Ireland has escaped the scourge of populism. You’ve only to look at the outburst of populist left MEP Mick Wallace on Iran’s mistreatment of women protesters to see it fully at play.
Chris Clarke’s recent book The Dark Knight and the Puppet Master contains this searing analysis of how populism in the UK operates in three ways:
The first is the belief in a common enemy – ‘us versus them’. Populists rely on a malign foe. Second is an anti-establishment default. Populists imply that omnipotent and self-serving elites block the ‘will of the people’. The third is a sense of decline – often expressed through opposition to growing interdependence between countries. This lends urgency to the populist cause.
In the UK…
…both the populist left and the populist right indulge in an attritional world view that lets their outer fringes feel justified in spitting at Tories or in intimidating MPs outside Parliament (as ‘Yellow Vest’ Brexit protesters have done on several occasions).
Populist belief systems are destructive, wherever they appear on the spectrum. They indulge a cognitively dissonant, conspiracy theorist’s view. And they lead to backward-looking and ideologically exclusive approaches.
Worst of all is the lack of perspective they encourage. Populist narratives don’t present hard choices or contemplate other viewpoints. They hold to ransom the wider electorate, often inadvertently, and imply that they speak for a larger group than they do.
They allow the idea that their views have innate moral superiority to dominate the argument.
Wallace is ‘right’ because, well, because he’s Mick Wallace, scourge of the bankers. It no longer matters in the public square whether he’s right or wrong about anything in particular the perception of innate moral superiority means he gets a hearing.
In this context, if you believe the myth that the media dictate political outcomes (a perception played to the full by media figures such as Paul Dacre in the UK and Rupert Murdoch in the US and UK) you may also believe in the inevitability myth too.
That’s not how Martin has played the game. Indeed, many of his internal critics say his abandonment of populism has put severe limits both on their party’s short term recovery and longer term ambitions. The next election will be a proving ground.
In accepting SF’s right to pitch for government Martin’s not only takes a calculated risk, it gives him another option (other than Fine Gael). Crucially too, he’s expressing an optimism in his own Programme for Government to deliver meaningful change.
And as Finn McRedmond argues in the Irish Times, in an age of dour and devotedly pessimistic populism, optimism really does matter:
…the bad thing about pessimism is that it is deterministic. That quality, incidentally, is the good thing about optimism. One way to ensure inexorable decline is to assume it is already happening. But such an assumption is unlikely to make us any more capable of fighting back. One way to ensure the longevity of our values, to defend and cheer for them, is to have faith in their future. This year gave us every reason to take that route.
Biden is currently one of the more unpopular Presidents of recent years, yet the electorate chose him and his reflationary policies against handing Congress over to a listless and increasingly anchor-less Republican Party in thrall to Trump populism.
It’s too much to hope that we are moving into a post populist world, since too many of the inequalities that triggered it in the place still exist (Marine Le Pen picked up 50% of the vote in rural France outside the cities favoured by high speed rail links).
Martin, saved from political death by his ability to strike a deal with his party’s oldest enemy, is now in a position where the voters would rather he stayed on. With constant pressure and if the policies are well thought out, things can change over time.
As Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien noted of any future coalition with Sinn Féin, the latter will have to “‘move into the sphere of reality’ and stop ‘standing on the ditch shouting and roaring’ if the pair were to work together within a future coalition.”
That may be counted as huge progress for Sinn Fein (and it is), but gaining Government statues may be much harder to pull off (whilst maintaining its populist grip on the younger demographics of the country) than, perhaps, it presently imagines.
Universal peace is like the desire for immortality: so difficult to achieve that religions promise immortality not before but after death. However a small peace is like the act of a doctor who cures a wound: not a promise of immortality, but at least a way to postpone death.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty