[Long Read] Next Irish Election will test whether what a government does makes a difference

In 2024 four billion people go to the polls: about half the population of the planet. In the US, poll watchers predict a Trump win in a campaign where he may spend more time in court than on the stump.

In the early 1930s, Will Rogers, a lifelong Democrat joked that the reason Republicans nearly always won the Whitehouse back then was that they had a habit of having three bad years followed by one good one.

The good year always fell in an election year. However increased consumer spending, real wage gains, a jump in consumer confidence and 216,000 jobs in December indicates Biden may still have cards to play.

So 2024 can provide a test for whether an intense focus on policy can actually cut through in an era in which trivia and fearfulness of a populist wave threatens to wipe out consideration of delivery altogether.

Those expecting the US Supreme Court to step in may be disappointed. Sure Trump’s sponsorship of the attack on Congress appears treasonous, but without an actual treason charge SCOTUS may not go there.

If Biden is to win, he’s going to have to do it on his political, social and economic record. That’s not easy with a US media which has an uncertain grip on how any of these issues stack up for ordinary people.

The politics of inevitability

Closer to home, Ireland will see its own ‘bare bellies in the car park’ faction fight played out between the three government parties and the opposition, if not later this year then certainly by February next year.

Many have argued that after the next Irish general election Sinn Féin will enter government in Ireland north and south. It’s possible, in the way Scottish independence is still possible, but not inevitable.

Democratic politics is messy and certainly not as linear as some of these analyses tend to assume. Professor Tim Snyder notes on the Ezra Klein podcast that what he calls ‘the politics of inevitability’…

…teaches you to narrate in such a way that the facts which seem to trouble the story of progress are disregarded. So in the politics of inevitability, if there is huge wealth inequality as a result of unbridled capitalism, we teach ourselves to say that that’s kind of a necessary cost of this overall progress. We learn this dialectical way of thinking by which what seems to be bad is actually good.

One undesirable outcome (for a democracy) associated with this form of politics is that, as the Professor says, if the future is already inevitable, then it actively teaches [us] not to think about values at all.

It also obliterates the idea that democracy is about how we go about making moral choices, since this is impossible if we don’t think, or even cannot think about the means and ends of any political choice.

2011-20 Precarious journey through austerity

Ireland over the 14 next months must ante up another iterative political choice as to what kind of future it wants. For those of us who don’t believe in the politics of inevitability, the outcome is far from clear.

If we could measure the top meme on the outcome of the next election, then Sinn Féin will enter government would beat all others by some distance, probably because it’s been around for a very long time.

Another reason perhaps is the frisson it creates in political journalists and those voters (mainly in the C1 and C2 social classes) who were burned by the crash, and to whom the 11-20 administration gave little help.

Participation in that 2011 coalition was a disaster for Irish Labour similar to the one endured by the Liberal Democrats in Britain after both tied themselves to the austerity policies of their larger partners.

The Social Democrats now enjoy some of the future that might have been Labour’s had it refused FG’s tempting invite to the government dance floor in 2011. Little thought was given to ends, or means.

Another popular motif successfully exploited by Sinn Féin and other more fragmented populist elements in the space is to equate Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael as one big party with similar conservative values.

That idea didn’t take hold till the confidence and supply arrangements after 2o16. In theory this allowed Fianna Fáil to oppose some elements of the PfG, whilst keeping the minority Fine Gael government in office.

Politically it was messy. Under confidence and supply Fine Gael alone crafted what was in retrospect a fairly limited programme for government created before the extent of the housing crisis came to light.

While it set up for a grand coalition which took office five months after the February 2020 election, it also left space for Sinn Féin to expand and assume leadership of the opposition for the first time.

2020-24 New agency in and through government

As a result Fine Gael entered government for a record third term in a row, but the previous nine years in power had come at one hell of a price. From 76 seats in 2011 their share of Dail seats now dropped to 35.

At the start of negotiations Varadkar was reluctant to participate in Ireland’s first grand coalition. He preferred to take his party out of play and into opposition hoping to force an FF/SF/Left coalition.

However, not only were none of the broad left parties prepared to go into government, Micheál Martin (as he had been all through the election campaign) was not prepared to share government with SF.

So the arithmetic of any viable coalition was set early in that process. The other event that occurred at that time was the onset of Covid, the threat to life and the need to take public health policy seriously.

It did two other things. The restrictions on meeting slowed down the speed at which negotiation could take place, giving each of the parties time to think carefully before signing off any given policy.

But crucially as the media focused on the Covid crisis the heat came off the participating parties and gave them an unprecedented level of privacy to hammer out a deal that was acceptable to all the partners.

This seemed to elude some commentators at the time who, interpreting the obviously tetchy pre election relationship between Varadkar and Martin, gave the coalition no more than the year end before it split.

Martin’s determination to stick to pre-election promises and (particularly early in his term as Taoiseach) his calm response to transgressions of shared responsibility from some of his partners also played a role.

With privacy came a seriousness in putting the agenda together, often with important policies for the long term that were unlikely to attract significant media attention (or votes) in the short run.

What’s remarkable about this accidental class of ‘slow politics’, formed within the interregnum created by Covid and prolonged lockdown, was a Programme for Government that worked for all three parties.

Focusing on outcomes, not process

Take the single-point entry system established in law, so applicants can interact with Government to seek consent for sustainable development at sea. It may sound boring, but it’s key to a sustainable future.

Along with the French inter-connector it opens the possibility for what is an energy dependent island becoming a net energy exporter to mainland Europe and, in the short term at least, Great Britain.

Measures in Women’s health include: free contraception for women aged 17-25; menopause clinics; the roll-out of period poverty mitigation measures; and rolling out eating disorder teams nationally.

In education, the first reform of the Leaving Cert in fifty years means that grades will now be set by 60% of traditional written exams and 40% relying on teacher-based continuous assessment.

In housing, there’s the ‘Affordable Purchase Scheme’, a shared equity scheme for first time buyers in new builds, and a new ‘cost rental’ home scheme aimed at bringing rents 25% below market level.

Reforms in planning and the ramping up of the  Land Development Agency has created a pipeline of developments. Output is set to exceed this year’s target of 29,000 units and next year’s 33,000 target.

None of these are sure winners. In housing the government is playing catch up and the issue remains acute for large swathes of former voters the government parties (particularly FF) need to win back.

The economy has thrived, with budget surpluses pumped by record amounts of corporate tax. It has established a €100 billion social wealth fund to ease future healthcare, pension and climate costs.

None of which is aimed at short term electoral advantage, since the fund cannot be touched until 2040 when it is expected that only the interest and not the capital can be used to top up government spending.

Nor is the Shared Ireland Initiative likely to buy votes at the next election, yet run from the Taoiseach’s office, its role is to ensure that there’s co-ordination of North South components across national policy.

Despite a general lack of interest in the press it is nevertheless is the first major post Belfast Agreement policy from either of its two main guarantors aimed at bolstering working relations on the island.

Despite these successes nothing, as Professor Snyder says, is inevitable. Polls for the government sit at sub 2020 ratings. The press remain sceptical (or uninterested) in the one time civil war parties.

So what’s Sinn Fein’s opportunity?

The main party of opposition finds itself in a position (for it) of unprecedented opportunity. Internally that brings both great excitement and huge nervousness. No one wants to blow this.

SF is Ireland’s wealthiest party with the resources to indulge in slim to no hope legal challenges to ‘bothersome critics’. They have ample means to build capacity where they had unexpected gains in 2020.

And this June will bring unprecedented gains in the local elections, not least since last time out in 2019, the year before their Great Leap Forward, in the Dail they lost half their cllrs – a loss of some 78 seats.

The locals may light a map of likely wins in the next Dail election (which must be held by the very latest early next year). Gains are likely too in the Euro elections with an extra seat in Midlands-North West.

On the face of it this should provide a dream run in for what has been for some time the single most popular party on the island, both in the north and in the south. Expectations in the press are sky high.

Yet the Mary Lou for Taoiseach teeshirts available online are not yet in the SF shop (even if their private briefings have talked it up for much of the last four years). The confidence of 2020 is now muted.

A more sober and measured analysis of Sinn Féin’s first term in opposition would describe it as a huge learning curve. As the largest Dail party with a woman leader Mary Lou has made her mark.

Yet there’s no sense that its keynote policy on housing adds up to more than being agin whatever the government proposes. Its opposition to much needed housing at the planning stage may haunt them at election time.

In the Irish Times Una Mullaly (not what Sinn Féiners regularly refer to as one of the ‘usual suspects’) recently put her finger on a degree of ennui with the party’s oppositionalist reflexes:

Will Sinn Féin in 2024 still just be the “attack dog” of opposition, or will a vision of what it will look like in government be clearly articulated? The spats and point-scoring episodes are boring people. Voters don’t like politics being played, they want to see its (positive) impact on their lives.

Mary Lou leads a party which, in spite of having held senior ministerial responsibility in Northern Ireland for a generation, shows little aptitude for negotiating trade offs needed for coalition government.

When the other parties abstained from the Executive in the 2016 they left Sinn Féin alone with the DUP in government. Without political cover that ill fated partnership lasted just seven months.

Although its most senior leadership hates to admit it, even in private, the party knows that its only means of entering government soon is to break up the current arrangements between FG and FF.

A coalition of the left in which even those closest to each other, like the Soc Dems and Labour, cannot bear to be counted in the same space is untenable. And PBP has certainly no appetite for it.

Multi party coalitions work in Ireland

The question of coalition came up over the Christmas holidays, as it regularly does, no doubt at the prompting of Sinn Féin press officers desperate for such an outcome, while desperate not to be seen to want it.

The Taoiseach answered with a clarity that is now regular but was often lacking in his pre-coalition days, that there was no chance of it. Martin, Tánaiste and leader of Fianna Fáil, was more nuanced:

Our aim is to go in and I’m elected as Taoiseach, that’s the objective. The parties in opposition to Sinn Fein are on 40% minimum at any given poll, Sinn Fein are down at around 30 and suddenly you’re all jumping to the conclusion that it’ll be a Sinn Fein-led government?

He accused SF of a “Liz Truss-approach” to caps on energy and the party’s opposition to carbon taxes, which may bolster its attempt to defenestrate FF from the rural west, but it’s a road block for the Greens.

Current government success lies in its carefully curated and broad coalition of interest. That doesn’t buy electoral success, but a premature divorce (of the kind SF needs) would be costly for all its members.

There’s a long tradition in the south of coalescing, initially at county council level and in latter decades in the Dail. It requires a dedication to win-win politics not least to ensure commitment through hard times.

Although writers like Patrick Murphy focus on the similarities between Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin the actual strength of the current coalition lies in its political diversity. That’s a lesson still to be learned.

A new quotidian reality

In reality there is nothing inevitable about the next Irish election. Despite its successes, in the febrile digital world where we now reside there are no irrevocable triumphs for this government, or any other.

Social media, originated in the States, has built on traits within American culture that the writer Kurt Anderson up sums as Fantasyland featuring conspiracy theorists in search of monsters to destroy.

William Borroughs, the famous writer and junkie once memorably wrote, ‘nothing is true and everything is permitted’. Thus people believe SF’s promises of a united Ireland, even when the evidence contradicts it.

Ultimately the next election will be a bench test of whether what a government actually does makes a difference in a world of self actualising feedback loops. Democracy, as ever, remains a work in progress.

Photo by Harrison Mitchell on Unsplash

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