Support for Sinn Fein a triumph of protest politics and anti-establishment cynicism
Polls for the forthcoming Euro and local elections are ominous, indicating a clear shift in favour of parties like Sinn Fein, left-wing protest groups and independents.
This follows a pattern of voters' flight from traditional parties in recent elections, most notably the game-changer of 2011.
The current Coalition is essentially a national government. The only ideology is national recovery, which requires painful and unpopular cuts in public spending, proving catastrophic for the Labour Party in particular.
However, after six austerity Budgets the strong showing for the opposition is not all that surprising. But added to cut-back grievance is a grave and unprecedented collapse of trust in politics and state institutions. This fuels support for anti-establishment and protest-driven politicians and parties.
Can this cynicism be countered? Is Ireland sleepwalking into a total change in our political landscape or is it possible to stem the tide of dissent back towards progressive and intelligent political ideology?
Perhaps there is substance in that grievance about inequality that deserves our attention? I believe there is still time to reverse the slide if ordinary citizens wise up to the testing challenges ahead.
The irony is that for years voting patterns in Ireland were so predictable as to be laughable, with canvassers bragging they could identify a Fianna Fail or Fine Gael house by glancing at the register.
Who could argue that such conservatism was desirable? On the contrary, rigid party allegiance was stultifying. In the 1980s people began to shift to suit their own preferences regardless of family tradition, and, with the emergence of the Progressive Democrats in the mid-1980s, there was more choice in the market. The mould was broken in that coalition governments were normalised.
The current shift, however, is of a different order. Since the economic collapse and banking scandals there has been a steady growth in support for left-wing parties, including Sinn Fein and a plethora of independent deputies of various hues. They make for a mixed bag of ideologies and eccentricities ranging from the far left to the far right. They are a colourful melange contributing to the gaiety of the nation, constituting a wealth of material for satirists and pundits alike.
But more serious and remarkable is the growth in Sinn Fein support. From a handful of deputies in the post-Good Friday Agreement period to a solid block of 14 TDs now challenging Labour and Fianna Fail. While welcoming – even rejoicing – in their embrace of politics over violence, most of us are gobsmacked by polls showing the party taking possibly four Euro seats and topping the poll in Dublin.
A combination of street activism and disaffection from establishment parties is a perfect storm in SF's favour. Fianna Fail is demonised for the recession while Fine Gael and Labour are derided for policies of "austerity".
But the controversial arrest of SF leader Gerry Adams this week may have a crucial impact on that party's expected gains. Alleged association with the IRA murder of a young mother, although vehemently denied by Mr Adams, would certainly turn off new voters, until now oblivious to Sinn Fein's murky past.
Meanwhile, polls across Europe point to rising disillusionment with the European Union. Dissident groups and parties are proliferating in most countries, often instigating riots and civil disobedience as in Greece.
Traditional parties, bereft of credibility, are left struggling to counter the easy answers these parties proffer to complex challenges of globalisation, immigration and unemployment. Many countries have seen the growth of anti-immigrant parties, such as UKIP in the UK, with support which suggest it will beat the Conservatives in the European elections. David Cameron will regret labelling the party as "fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists", a taunt which has backfired badly.
By dissing them in this way, Cameron misread the anti-EU mood in his own country. A Europe-wide study shows that anti-EU parties such as UKIP could win more than 30pc of the vote across the continent in the May elections taking as many as 281 of the 751 seats.
UKIP, for however long it lasts, is dangerous but appears immune to criticism and political correctness. However controversial the party's racist remarks and policies, Nigel Farage makes no apology and the votes still roll in. The disillusion with mainstream politics and xenophobia underlying this phenomenon may be predictable in a global recession. But the target of vitriol is against migrants not only from outside Europe, but within the EU – such as Romanians.
To our credit, such intolerance, while existing at ground level, has not found a political voice in Ireland. We remain largely positive about our European membership. Social cohesion in Ireland is remarkable despite huge social change and income inequality which requires attention.
But those who believe in politics and the values of a liberal democracy should not be complacent. How many of us through laziness or apathy have missed voting in recent elections? At home and abroad, peace, political stability and democracy is being taken for granted, leaving space for protest and extremism to thrive. May 23rd is an opportunity for sense and reflection to prevail about this state of affairs in this jurisdiction.