Thursday 29 September 2016

Feel-good factor can never be discounted but Labour and FG failed to generate it

Published 29/02/2016 | 02:30

Fine Gael’s Kate O’Connell (right) celebrates winning a seat in Dublin Bay South with her sister Theresa Newman, outside the RDS count centre. Pic: Damien Eagers
Fine Gael’s Kate O’Connell (right) celebrates winning a seat in Dublin Bay South with her sister Theresa Newman, outside the RDS count centre. Pic: Damien Eagers

Everything has been overturned - and what an uplifting vision it is. In capsizing the ship of State, the electorate has demonstrated its power - and regardless of parties floundering and politicians sinking, democracy in action remains a sight worth seeing.

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Democracy at the sharp edge is red in tooth and claw, of course. It chooses some candidates and tosses aside others. It can be fickle, with previous support offering no guarantees into the future. It respects neither rank nor length of service - government ministers topple as easily as newcomers.

In short, it is the closest thing to perfection in this imperfect little country of ours.

The outgoing Government isn't likely to see it that way. Members of the Coalition, both those who were spared and those rejected, have been articulating their pain over the weekend.

But election time is the people's only chance at accountability. And with emotions ranging from resentment to hostility to downright fury against the Coalition, the political fallout was never going to be pretty.

Some say the people's wishes lack clarity, but they could not be more apparent. It's time for change. Genuine change, not tinkering at the edges. Any political grouping which fails to absorb this message is on borrowed time.

While Fine Gael and Labour made a succession of mistakes in government, there was one mistake common to both during their election campaigns: a failure to generate the feel-good factor.

The feel-good factor can never be discounted. Fianna Fáil, by comparison, was always adept at selling that, even when it was built on sand.

The electorate had very little sense of positivity after five years of the Coalition and no real faith in an improvement any time soon. No government can impose punishing levels of austerity and expect to feel the love. That's counter-intuitive.

There are a number of winners from this election result, however. First and foremost, the people are winners, because our sovereign will has been expressed. We didn't like property taxes or the simultaneously arrogant and ham-fisted way Irish Water was foisted on us, nor did we care for politics as usual, with its patronage and cronyism.

We snapped our fingers at election promises of tax cuts while children are stuck in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, homeless people are sleeping on the streets and sick people are lying on hospital trolleys, waiting to be admitted.

Secondly, women TDs are winners. A raft of bright, new, female deputies is headed into the Dáil, with first-timers including the Green Party's deputy leader Catherine Martin and Independent Katherine Zappone. Women have been elected in constituencies where there was never a female TD in the history of the State, such as in Louth, where Sinn Féin's Imelda Munster broke through.

One of the striking elements of the campaign was the extensive number of women's faces on election posters. The quota system is starting to work, perhaps not as rapidly as was hoped, but encouraging progress is being made. The task of improving on the outgoing Dáil's woeful 16pc female membership has begun.

While the electorate's purge saw women deposed along with men, new female deputies include Sinn Féin's Carol Nolan and Kathleen Funchion, Josepha Madigan for Fine Gael and Anne Rabbitte, Mary Butler and Fiona O'Loughlin for Fianna Fáil.

Take Dún Laoghaire, for example. Fine Gael ran two women there and two women were elected, with sitting TD Mary Mitchell O'Connor bringing home running mate Maria Bailey.

The closest contender for that second Fine Gael seat was another woman, Mary Hanafin of Fianna Fáil, who was stoical in defeat.

She said she was open to the idea of mentoring women from her party and Micheál Martin ought to take her up on it. Help will be crucial if new female TDs are to achieve their potential in the 32nd Dáil, because despite advances, they are still entering a male ethos resistant to change.

Veteran Fine Gael politician Monica Barnes, a long-standing advocate for women in politics, was warm in her welcome for the influx of new female TDs from all parties. Speaking at the count in Loughlinstown Sports Centre, she said women politicians needed supports and to support each other, regardless of party affiliations. Quotas are only one step - mentoring and training will be important too.

Thirdly, Sinn Féin is a winner. Arguably, it is the party that gains most from this election in real terms. Not because it increased its vote by some 50pc, although it has. Not because a number of able women will enter the Dáil under its banner, although they will.

But because it can go into opposition as the leading anti-government voice - leaving Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to damage one another's brands in coalition, or by whatever class of alliance they agree on.

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin will be in pole position to continue harvesting votes and it will reap the dividends at the next General Election, which will be sooner rather than later.

Monica Barnes, who foresees another election coming down the track, expressed concern about politicians trying to "haggle together something now just for the sake of it" if such a deal didn't look as if it would stick.

Elsewhere, it was a good election result for the Left. Richard Boyd Barrett of People Before Profit, the first TD over the line in Dún Laoghaire, regards it as almost inevitable that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will form a government.

He said this paved the way for a Left-versus-Right option for voters, rather than the pointless continuation of civil-war politics.

This may well be true, but perhaps the most striking result of the General Election is that it boosts the chances of Sinn Féin becoming a government party in the not too distant future.

Fianna Fáil may be whooping about its result, but arguably Sinn Féin is the party with most reason to celebrate.

Irish Independent

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