Tuesday 27 September 2016

Pesky voters refuse to be either predictable or revolutionary

Opinion-forming set can't handle the curveball hurled at it by the little people and are using results to confirm prejudices

Brendan O'Neill

Published 13/03/2016 | 02:30

Family politics: The Healy-Rae brothers arrive outside Leinster House with their entourage which sparked an outburst Photo: Photocall Ireland / RollingNews.ie
Family politics: The Healy-Rae brothers arrive outside Leinster House with their entourage which sparked an outburst Photo: Photocall Ireland / RollingNews.ie

Like anthropologists studying some exotic tribe, Ireland's political observers have spent the past two weeks trying to work out what the hell Irish voters want.

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Their frustration at the election results, and by extension at the electorate, is palpable.

"What the hell are you trying to tell us?", is the unspoken wail behind every brow-furrowed conversation in Dublin 4 right now.

The pesky voters refused to be either predictable or revolutionary. They didn't line up behind the old Civil War parties like they used to, with Fianna Fail and Fine Gael getting less than 50pc of votes between them for the first time ever.

And they also failed to give that oh-so-expected boost to Sinn Fein, with party votes up by less than 4pc, or to cheer the Anti-Austerity Alliance to power - it got a measly 1.7pc boost in support.

Instead, many voters plumped for colourful or just ordinary Independents, including countryside politicians who've been snootily branded "country bumpkins" by politics-watchers.

The opinion-forming set can't handle the curveball hurled at it by voters. It wanted the little people to give a clear-eyed statement on Ireland's future, yet we've got an electorate-authored impasse.

It's hard to remember a time when the chasm-sized disconnect between Ireland's everyday people and its political elites has been so graphically exposed as it has by this election.

Observers and the social media set, who are supposed to have their fingers on the political pulse, utterly failed to foresee the results. Ever more alienated from ordinary people, especially that curious cap-wearing tribe out in the country, pundits made an awful fist of working out what people were thinking.

And mightily irritated by voters' refusal to do either the obedient thing of giving a familiar nod to FF or FG, or the sexy thing of sweeping a Syriza-style outfit to power, some of these pundits have turned on the voting blob, wondering if perhaps they aren't cut out for this clever lark of politics.

Sick of the inscrutability of the electorate, and its refusal to write a neat political narrative, many in the political and media elite are now rudely projecting their own narrative on to events, whether it fits or not.

And it doesn't.

Two post-election narratives have been conjured up by the confused chattering classes. The first says that the Irish are skulking back to parish-pump politics. They're giving their ballots to practitioners of "hayseed politics", because they don't like change or shiny, modern things. They're taking refuge in the hole of history.

And the second says the Irish have just changed everything, "utterly", of course, because a nod to Yeats is a must. They've brought about a "political earthquake". They've expressed a desire for a "profound shift in priorities", says Fintan O'Toole, away from nasty capitalism and towards a sort-of socialism. The winner was social democracy, O'Toole reckons.

Make your minds up. Which is it? A mass retreat to yesteryear, or a people's blow for a radical new future? It can't be both. And in truth, it's neither.

The commentariat seems not to understand that this isn't an either/or situation.

To the extent that many voters expressed a longing for a more local or traditional kind of politics, that doesn't mean they're allergic to change. On the contrary, this keenness to cling to some of the good stuff of history, in the face of a downbeat cultural elite that now depicts Irish history as one long horror show best wept over in misery memoirs, is itself a kind of renewal - it's an expression of faith in people and the future, not a march to the past.

Observers are using the results either to confirm their prejudices about stupid people or to energise their hope that social democracy might haul its arse off its deathbed and take over Europe once again. Both narratives are easily rebutted.

The election result represented the rallying of the Irish people behind the flabby leftish thinking of the likes of Fintan and his mates? Please.

Yes, some of the successful Independents are left-wing. But in terms of leftish parties, in 2011 Labour, Sinn Fein and the United Left Alliance got 31.5pc of votes in 2011, while this time Labour, Sinn Fein, the anti-austerity folks and the Social Democrats got 27pc of the vote.

That victory for social democracy happened more in the wishful minds of Dublin thinkers that on the streets of Cork or Galway.

As to other narrative, about voters fleeing modernity and wrapping themselves in the blanket of a flatcap-decorated nostalgia - I don't buy it.

The snottiness about country folks who dared to vote for atypical or traditionalist politicians has been extraordinary.

Most of it has been expressed in outright snobbery towards the Healy-Rae brothers elected as Independents in Kerry. When these bros turned up to the Dail with an entourage waving Kerry flags and playing accordions and tin whistles, the Twitterati went berserk.

They genuinely couldn't believe such people were taking seats. These "backward gombeens", these "backward idiots", these "spud-eating leprechauns", they should make us "ashamed to be Irish", spat supposedly PC tweeters. "[S]hame on the electorate of Kerry", said comedian Alison Spittle (a fitting name for someone flinging spittle on stupid voters). One tweeter said: "In Libya, they're fighting to get rid of backward, unintelligent morons, and in Ireland we elect them." Wow.

One columnist said the rise of "country bumpkins" coupled with the demise of the likes of Lucinda Creighton and Alan Shatter confirms that "publicly displayed intelligence can be a serious handicap in Irish politics". The ignoramuses are winning, apparently. Not only is this countryphobic snobbery darkly ironic (the Twits brand Kerry folks as backward while exposing their own backward attitudes to anyone who isn't exactly like them) - it's also wrong. It's wrong to say that people who think the past is something to admire, and maybe be inspired by, want to live in the past.

What many voters seem to be sticking two fingers up at is not just Kenny and austerity, but also the reduction of Irish history to a terrible thing, a burden to be escaped. They're rebuking not only greedy financial elites, but pessimistic cultural elites, too.

For years now, history has been depicted as something that happens to the Irish people, rather than something they make happen.

From morbid reflections on the Famine to the painful handwringing over the scourge of clerical child abuse, we've watched as thinkers have slammed almost everything that happened before 1999 as wicked and unspeakable and evidence that Ireland's history is a black hole of nastiness.

The country, in particular, has been reimagined as a bleak place where awful forces ruled.

Excavations in Tuam and Letterfrack - neither of which turned up the horrors the cultural pessimists were hoping for - have leant credence to the idea that horrible historic forces remain buried in the ruins of rural places, ready to emerge at any moment to traumatise even more people.

This elitist attitude is best summed up in that Amnesty International ad calling for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment, which says Ireland is "chained to its past", complete with spooky, black-and-white shots of those screwed-up rural areas.

Indeed, experts now insist that the Irish people - ordinary people, that is, not the experts themselves - bear the scars of history. They speak of "multi-generational trauma", as if people are hapless creatures infected by history, damaged by it.

I think people have had it with this noxious notion that everything old was horrible. They can see the goodness of the past, the value of tradition. They know that not every institution was evil, and not everyone suffered. They and their families and friends don't feel chained or oppressed by tradition or the past; they actually feel moved by it.

No, it isn't always the content of Ireland's history they love; often it's just the fact history was made, and was made by ordinary people, including cap-wearers and "gombeens" and others now written off by Dublin elites. The chattering classes might be irritated by ordinary people, but not as much as ordinary people seem irritated by the thoughtless traducing of tradition and the depiction of history as a force that damages us rather than a thing we ourselves forged through struggle and effort and survival.

The election results, and the political divide they've exposed, speak not to an old lefty uprising or to a scurrying to hide in history, but rather to a feeling of freshness about Irish political life. Voters have had it with much of the political class, and with the treatment of the past as a tragic, tsunami-like force.

Tradition isn't always a refuge, but rather can be a moral resource for engaging with and confronting the challenges of today. That in the centenary year of 1916 many Irish people are looking both back and forward is pretty inspiring.

That this flummoxes the chattering classes is a bonus.

Sunday Independent

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