We are sleepwalking back into an era of auction politics


Noel Whelan, Barrister, writer and political commentator


The underlying factors which featured in Irish politics this time last year have not changed much. The best guesses (and of course they can only be guesses), which we can make about the timing, nature and outcomes of the next general election is as follows:

– That the election will be in early March 2016, probably Thursday 10th or Friday 11th March 2016.

– That the next government is still more likely to be a coalition of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil above any other configuration. This is what the last twelve months of published polls suggest. Despite protestations from both parties that they will not go into government with each other, they will if they have to. If the outcome of the next election is that those two parties combined (possibly with the help of a handful of others) comprise the only workable majority, they will to go into government together. The electorate will not thank them if they don’t.

– The only significant shift in party support patterns in the last twelve months, year on year, is some strengthening of the Fine Gael position. This is attributable to the economic recovery and the sense that this recovery is holding and spreading. The last twelve months has also seen the government avoid many of the political messes that characterised the previous Dáil year; although one of those political controversies, namely water charges, continues to haunt them.

– The improvement in the Fine Gael’s position does make the prospect of a ‘Fine Gael/Labour and others’ government after the election more likely than it was a year ago. However, the Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil option is still the most likely.

– The Independents and smaller parties have wasted the opportunity to offer real alternative government.  They are offering alternative policies, but they are offering those alternative policies in many different alternative configurations and they are not making a realistic offering to be the driving force in a genuinely new government.

– If this time next year we end up with a Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil government, which seems likely, or the current government is returned with some element of outside support, which seems unlikely but possible, then the independents and others, (and indeed Sinn Féin) will only have themselves to blame.

– Instead of coordinating to the extent necessary to be a realistic alternative government, the incumbent independent deputies of the left, right and centre, the former Fine Gael and Labour deputies who have gone independent in this Dáil and the micro parties on the far-left remain disparate, disjointed and therefore are likely to remain politically dispossessed.

– Although they have surged in the polls, Independents and others are less ambitious for themselves than the electorate is for them. On the far left they are more focused on competing against each other than coordinating. In the centre and right-of-centre, they seem only interested in a contest about which of them might make up the numbers for the established political parties in government after the election. What they should be doing is coming together to make a real offering to be the alternative government or, at least, be the central component of an alternative government.

– This represents a lost opportunity for those who believe in more progressive and transparent politics. It represents a lost opportunity for those who believe in real and substantial political reform and it represents a lost opportunity for those anxious to see a transformed and more equal Ireland emerge from the recent crisis.

– Because the independents and Others (and the Opposition more generally) have failed to get their collective act together in any meaningful sense, the choice at the next election has already been framed (even in the title of this session at MacGill) as one between political stability necessary to sustain recovery or political chaos which threatens that recovery.

As this framing intensifies we can expect to hear even more about the supposed lessons for this country of recent politics in Greece and the recent election in Britain.

I think this framing should be resisted – and not only because it serves the purposes of the establishment parties. It is damaging for our democratic process to let our next election be seen in such a way so early, not least because it hinders real debate in advance of the election. Irish politics has moved in a relatively short period of time from recession politics to recovery politics. That shift has come with insufficient recognition of the lessons to be learnt from the economic crisis and the political failings that contributed to it.

What is even more worrying is the fact we have made that shift from recession politics to reform politics without any real consideration about what and who this recovery should be for. Who should have first call on the additional public resources that are now becoming available? How can our society best be transformed and our political system best be improved to make our post-crisis society more equal than the pre-crisis form?

At this point, less than eight months before the likely election date, these questions do not feature sufficiently in our politics. Instead, we are sleep walking back to an era of auction politics. The 2016 election will of course, in economic terms, be a ‘recovery election’ but it needs to be more than that.

Shouldn’t it also be an ‘ Equality election’? Shouldn’t it be a “Children’s’ Election”? Shouldn’t it be the “Real Reform Election” (one that would actually transform our political system)?

If there is not going to be real binary government choice in this election, then isn’t it all the more important that the focus be on the social issues and not exclusively economic priorities which should shape government in Ireland for the next five years. That would be a better use of our time now rather than focus at this stage on who or what configurations will make up that government.

We need a real pre-election debate on the issues. We need to discuss, debate and decide not on the Ireland of 2016 but what kind of Ireland we want in 2021 and beyond. That is what the decision in the 2016 election is about.

If this real policy and politics debate doesn’t happen within the political system, then there is an onus on civic society, on non-governmental organisations, on policy specialists and academics, on social and community groups and, indeed, on us in the media, to use the time remaining in the coming months to make sure such a real debate does happen and that it gets coverage.


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