Monday 30 May 2016

Gene Kerrigan: Last-ditch pitch for the politics of fear

Slowly, as the parties seek to frighten us, the voters move beyond the old politics

Published 21/02/2016 | 02:30

Cartoon
Cartoon

It was the night of the general election, 2011, the polls had closed and there was a poet on RTE.

Perhaps the usual pundits were busy that night - you know the ones, the same old faces. The experts who reel off yards of useless information. Like, how many second preferences so-and-so needs if he's to be elected on the second count.

Instead of that kind of petty babble, we had poet Theo Dorgan giving a truly political assessment of what was happening. We quoted him in this column.

"It seems to me," he said, "this is an interim moment in a long, unfolding process of change."

And he went on to assess the reality behind the election.

In a moment, we'll explore how well Dorgan's theory stands up. And we'll also note just how much shit has been frightened out of us over the past week. My apologies for the language, but that's the way Fine Gael talks these days.

Usually, pundits speak of the election campaign as if it was a television drama, stretching over four weeks. The drama has highs and lows, comic moments and cliff-hangers, winners and losers, and the pundits speak of how the politicians "performed".

And, like teenage trainspotters, my colleagues steep themselves in the minutia of constituency statistics in the hope that they can "call" various seats sooner and more accurately than some other pundit.

But who, my friends, gives a damn?

Don't get me wrong. All that speculation about what percentage of a quota the candidate will get if the third preferences come from the boxes in the eastern part of the constituency - well, that's all very interesting.

When I say very interesting, I mean mildly interesting.

When I say mildly interesting, I mean almost as interesting as listening to the Cattle Market Report.

The reason this column quoted Theo Dorgan five years ago was that it was so unusual to hear an attempt to place the collapse of Fianna Fail within a larger context - to understand politically what was happening. And in the five years since I haven't heard a more plausible analysis.

The media is bad at analysis. It loves the game.

I don't know if Dorgan's analysis was correct, time will tell. That's not the point. Trying to see the larger picture, to understand what's happening to us, always seemed to me to be what journalism should primarily be about.

Dorgan, 2011: "Nothing in this election has persuaded me that Fianna Fail, Fine Gael or a great chunk of Labour understands ... how desperate the situation is ... how powerless the old politics is to deal with it."

Five years later, nothing's changed on that front.

For decades, the civil war parties sneered at one another, and everyone else was pushed to the side. By and by, civil war enmities faded, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael settled into competing tribes with little meaningful political difference between them. Fighting mock battles, they happily took turns running the country, sometimes with the help of smaller parties.

After the right wing parties destroyed the economy they seemed to believe that nothing had fundamentally changed. Fine Gael would take over for a term, while Fianna Fail did penance. Then, after a few years, things would settle back into the old pattern we know and love.

To gauge the scale of the political disaster, try this: imagine that in 2007 Richard Boyd Barrett of People Before Profit was Minister for Finance. Imagine Ruth Coppinger of the Socialist Party was Taoiseach.

And imagine that their left wing policies wrecked the economy. Imagine they plunged us into tens of billions of debts, caused mass unemployment, large-scale emigration, service cuts, emergency taxes, hospitals asset stripped, queues at soup kitchens, thousands homeless.

Let me write the editorials for you: "Utter calamity ... ghastly left wing experiment ... never, ever again must the voters be so foolish as to ... madness ... loony left ..."

Imagine Clare Daly was Minister for Finance and tried to force bankers and bondholders to pay their own debts, to get them off our backs. And imagine the EU's chief banker, Jean Claude Trichet, told her to bugger off and she immediately kowtowed to him.

The editorials would condemn this weak woman and hint that this disaster wouldn't have happened had a tough man like Michael Noonan had the job.

But Noonan did have the job, he kowtowed and cost us billions.

These things happened. They happened to Fianna Fail, with Fine Gael and Labour jeering them for not being right wing enough - and promising even more right wing measures if they got the Mercs under their own arses.

After that, Fine Gael and Labour protected those who wrecked the country. And passed the bill to us.

Now, they boast of recovery, unaware of the damage they've wreaked.

The polls suggest there's a surge away from the right wing parties. It's unfocused, tentative. Here's Dorgan in 2011: "I think Fianna Fail is a dead piece of roadkill at the moment," he said. "There's going to be, I think, a decimation of Fine Gael the next time out. People are going through a strange, slow-motion crash of the State. They've dealt with one of the great monoliths. They're now scrupulously giving the other monolith, in the old politics, its shot."

Now, a substantial part of the electorate has detached itself from the old politics.

You can smell the fear within the parties, within the media. Ibec has pretty much gone hysterical.

The old politics depends on fear to retain its hold on us. Vote for the old politics, we're told, or the economy will be damaged, there'll be huge unemployment, massive emigration and ...

Eh, folks - it's already happened, and it was you that did it. Your parties, your bankers, your developers, your right wing politics.

Ah, now, that's all changed, they tell us, we're different now. And their frightened cheerleaders badmouth every potential for change that dares show its face.

But we know Fianna Fail is umbilically connected to the developers; we know Fine Gael has adopted ever more right wing policies - for instance, voting at the United Nations to allow vulture capital continue to prey without hindrance on Peru, Bolivia, India.

So, the electorate is considering the smaller parties, and the Independents. Richard Bruton responds with a rant against a "motley crew". Fine Gael doesn't mind if you vote for Fianna Fail, and vice versa. What they fear is that voters have looked beyond the grand old game the parties love to play.

Last week, a "key party strategist" for Enda Kenny whispered to the Sunday Business Post that for the last 10 days of the campaign they would "frighten the shit" out of voters.

Since then, we've seen their frighteners at work, on our screens, in our newspapers.

The crime here - an attempt to subvert debate - is not the smearing of Independents and smaller parties. They can look after themselves. It's the bullying of voters.

But people like Richard Boyd Barrett for once got access to a TV debate, and it turned out that he didn't have horns - he had reasonable policies and a contempt for the crooked and the craven. Likewise, Stephen Donnelly of the Social Democrats. It will take more than two elections to bring change, but we're at least moving towards it.

Some of us, wary of Sinn Fein, fear not that Mary Lou will suddenly flash an AK47. We fear Sinn Fein will find its niche in the old politics.

Dorgan, 2011: "A new way of thinking is struggling to be born. And it's not ready yet to be cut off at the neck and co-opted by the spinmeisters and by the image makers."

We'll see next Friday if the politics of fear has succeeded in killing off that new way of thinking.

Sunday Independent

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