Friday 21 October 2016

Gene Kerrigan: The old choreography has had its day

There are new voices and new ideas in the Dail, despite the efforts of the old parties

Published 14/08/2016 | 02:30

'The Dail began to look and sound — because of the clothes and the accents — more as the people of this country look and sound'
'The Dail began to look and sound — because of the clothes and the accents — more as the people of this country look and sound'

Yes, there are a lot of very important things that are seriously wrong with Irish politics and politicians.

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And it's a big, big But.

There's one central thing that our political ancestors got right. It has a crucial influence on how we do things today, and whether we have a chance of dealing with our problems democratically.

And that's proportional representation. PR has given us a chance to think about the significant shifts now taking place in political life, to discuss them and adjust to them fairly and effectively.


And it's another big, big But.

Political vested interests have been relentless in their attempts to undermine the proper and progressive use of parliament. They have been playing ducks and drakes with the legitimacy of the Dail.

And they do it while posing as defenders of all that is traditional and right.

Ireland doesn't exist in a political vacuum. We're not the only place where the economic crisis has caused a political earthquake.

Instability in the eurozone gave a boost to nationalistic British Tories. Pandering to this, David Cameron held a referendum and accidentally levered the country out of the EU, and possibly provoked the break-up of the UK.

British Labour has mostly ignored all this. Instead, the right of the party has been obsessed with the need to undermine Jeremy Corbyn; the left is obsessed with the need to defend him.

UK politics and ours have a lot in common. In each country, the main parties share a broadly similar political agenda. Tories v Labour; Fianna Fail v Fine Gael.

Essentially, it's managerialism - each party competes to convince voters that they, not the others, would best manage the economy.

The political agenda is set by professional managers. It's an agenda based on their own ambitions - it simply ignores issues that are important to the broad mass of the people. All is subordinate to the party agendas.

This worked when there was growth. State funds could be used strategically to keep the punters satisfied.

After the crash of 2008, regardless of what anyone thought, the agenda of austerity orchestrated by the European Central Bank wasn't even up for discussion.

In the UK, the almost accidental rise of Jeremy Corbyn threatens to force such issues on to the agenda. Which is why the whole of the right's attention has been on trying to remove the intruder.

In Ireland, proportional representation makes the difference. In the UK, the first-past-the-post system shuts out minority voices. Not only is there no effective parliamentary challenge to the mainstream parties, there are so many safe seats that many people know their votes don't count.

Here, in 2011, the voters mangled FF. Enda Kenny thought the people had swung in behind FG - instead, he was being given a chance to do better.

From 2011 to 2016, he showed FG has nothing to offer but a variant on FF policies, so in 2016 the voters mangled FG.

Labour, which had brazenly done the opposite to what it promised, got an even worse hiding.

Some voters who had deserted FF went back to it, perhaps hoping the party had moved on from the old days of builders, bankers and bluster (spoiler: it hasn't). Some clung to Independents who practise relentless self-promotion.

And because of proportional representation, minority voices began to be heard. There had been dissident individuals - the likes of Noel Browne, Tony Gregory - but now there was a range of voices offering more than the same old variations on the same themes. The small left-wing collaborations, the individual lefties and Independents, the Social Democrats and an enlarged Sinn Fein.

The Dail began to look and sound - because of the clothes and the accents - more as the people of this country look and sound.

For decades, it was compulsory that men in the Dail wore the kind of suits they'd wear to job interviews; and women dressed in a style most often seen at wedding receptions.

It is not accidental that Fine Gael launched a ridiculous attempt to force people like Richard Boyd Barrett and Mick Wallace to wear suits. These things matter to the political dinosaurs.

More important, issues outside of the party agendas began to push their way into parliamentary politics.

It didn't matter how much damage and unease austerity created, the parties were in favour of it and the TDs did as they were told.

It didn't matter that in small towns and in city housing estates the public's experience of policing was harsher than anything spoken of in the Dail.

Nama was none of our business, nor were the tens of billions in profits being raked off by vultures. Parliament was no place for discussing the constitutional position of abortion. And if people in expensive offices were preparing for the privatisation of the Irish water supply, it was no business of ours - or of our Parliament.

All of these issues and more are now commonly put on the parliamentary agenda - by the new voices in the Dail.

The garda whistleblowers would have been crushed, had the dissenting voices in the Dail not backed them. We used to hear of the oratorical styles of John Dillon or John Kelly, but they often had nothing much to say. Mick Wallace doesn't have their rhetorical skills, but he has done immense service to the State, through informed questioning about Nama.

Catherine Murphy and Stephen Donnelly, too, Joan Collins, Boyd Barrett - Clare Daly was so effective that the worst elements of the garda force fell over one another rushing to leak details of a baseless drink-and-drive arrest. Sinn Fein has raised significant issues, Pearse Doherty has held Michael Noonan to account far more effectively than anyone else since 2011.

It's not only the left that cares about such issues - but right-wing TDs speak under threat of the party whip.

It was long the cry of voters that "they're all the same", and they were. They all promised the same things, they were all party to the same betrayals. Every now and then there'd be a carefully arranged "rebellion", as a TD voted against the party on a constituency issue. That was done with a wink; the TD ostentatiously "lost the whip" for a while, then - having protected the seat for the party - all was forgiven in time for the next election.

Today, there are differences. As yet, the new voices are very much a minority. They often speak in the cliched shorthand they use to address one another, rather than in the language of the people.

Since the general election, the right has struggled to overwhelm and cancel the outcome of proportional representation. The whole circus that had to be put together to build a ramshackle minority government is about allowing the right to dominate both the Government and the opposition benches.

Too often, the media lets them get away with it. FG does something - the media ask FF for the opposition view. Don't they know all this, including the little arguments and confrontations between FF and FG, have been worked out behind closed doors?

Democracy, please, not choreography.

Sunday Independent

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