This election might not be only about money in the pocket
Published 09/01/2016 | 02:30
Is the General Election all about the economy? Or, will other key issues threaten the status quo? It is time to examine what could go wrong for Kenny, Burton & Co.
Politics is many things - but it is rarely neat. The Government really hopes to fight the General Election on straight economic issues related to work and incomes.
But what if that supposition is at least partly wrong? What about the growing view that the long-suffering Irish people will see economic recovery as an opportunity "to shop around for political alternatives"?
And why do we assume people's other concerns will be totally dwarfed by economic recovery and money in the pocket? What about serious problems afflicting housing, health services, the fight against crime, sluggishness of political reform, and fairness in spreading recovery benefits to remoter regions? Is a general promise to deal with abortion after the election enough?
Enda Kenny and Joan Burton know the voters do not necessarily care for them, or indeed for any other politicians. But the Government supposition is that, given where the economy was five years ago, where it is now, and where we all hope it can go, the voters might just live with this Coalition and return it to power in some shape or form.
For Fine Gael it appeared at first assessment to be a very simple message to sell. In fact they had it framed by the latter half of the first year they came into power.
For people like Phil Hogan, before his appointment to the European Commission, the next election would be a choice between the ones who saved the economy, that is the current Government. Or, the crowd who already wrecked it last time, Fianna Fáil. Or, if you feel really brave try the crowd who will definitely wreck it - Sinn Féin and some parties on the far left.
But let's put these would-be "other issues" through the political scanner:
To its credit the Coalition has unveiled an ambitious €4.8bn five-year plan to transform housing supply. The downside is that there is a long lead-in period.
Meanwhile, rents are spiralling - up about 10pc in the major urban centres and the rate of homelessness is rising at an alarming rate. At end of the 2015 there were 1,571 children from 738 families homeless.
The ongoing curb on lending under Central Bank rules is trapping many people in rental accommodation, which despite new rental controls remains very expensive. Most citizens have their homes - but many of these will be concerned about the plight of their adult children, relatives and friends.
Chaotic scenes in hospital A&E units often evoke a despairing and apathetic response from the Irish public who have been hearing about such things for a quarter of a century. In the past Fianna Fáil managed to transcend these problems and win elections.
It would be dangerous to blithely assume this record can be repeated in 2016. For one thing, this election will take place amidst media images of large numbers of elderly and other vulnerable people suffering long waits in corridors on trolleys.
For another, the nurses risk being in the teeth of industrial action, voicing their own deep frustration with an intolerable situation. Nurses can pack a political punch at election time.
Problems in the fight against crime mirror those associated with housing. Some delivered improvements, and others which are promised, need a long lead-in time.
Two simple facts are clear: there is a widespread feeling of insecurity among ordinary citizens who feel vulnerable to crime. There has also been a huge reduction in garda numbers, down from 14,500 five years ago to 12,000 today, and 139 largely rural garda stations have been closed.
The force is undergoing its biggest change since the foundation of the State. Some 600 new gardaí are being recruited and there has been investment in new vehicles and more IT facilities promised.
However, it takes two years to train a garda and all the while others are reaching retirement age.
"We will radically overhaul the way Irish politics and government work. The failures of the political system over the past decade were a key contributor to the financial crisis and the system must now learn those lessons urgently. Government is too centralised and unaccountable."
Those words were in the 2011-2016 Programme for Government which promised a "democratic revolution". Enda Kenny promised to abolish the Seanad but never properly explained why and did not personally campaign in the referendum which was defeated.
Local council reforms are untested so far. But already there is talk of reviving town councils.
The Cabinet continues to dictate to the Dáil and there is a rampant use of the guillotine to ram legislation through. Among the few tangible changes is the reduction of TD numbers from 166 to 158.
Mr Kenny's pledge to allow the election of the Ceann Comhairle by secret ballot after the next election is seen as a tacit acknowledgement of reform shortcomings and a belatedly effort to deliver one real change.
Mr Kenny has been widely lauded for deft handling of the most divisive issue of the past 35 years.
He has signalled a citizens' forum and parliamentary committee, probably leading to a referendum in the next five years. But this issue is not entirely "parked". People with strong views on both sides of the argument will make their voices heard.
The sum of all these issues will carry a great deal of weight in the election debates.
All parties will speak to them and combined these matters could dilute the importance if not outweigh matters economic.
This is Ireland's first election since recession. And the last time we voted in February 2011 many of us were shell-shocked by the loss of sovereignty to the EU-ECB-IMF troika just weeks earlier in the previous November.
That last election drove the "natural party of government" Fianna Fáil to the brink of extinction.
It reversed long-time pecking orders by making Fine Gael and Labour the biggest and second biggest parties respectively.
Nobody knows fully how the experience of profound recession and loss of sovereignty experience has changed us.
In two other bailout countries, Spain and Greece, large numbers of people looked left when they voted.