Monday 24 October 2016

The majority didn't vote for a Left-wing agenda

The Government needs to snap out of its torpor and stop allowing marginal politicians to dictate the agenda

Published 02/10/2016 | 02:30

Leo the Saint: The Social Protection Minister has always been conscious of the importance of the middle classes to the economy Photo: Steve Humphreys
Leo the Saint: The Social Protection Minister has always been conscious of the importance of the middle classes to the economy Photo: Steve Humphreys

Politics in Ireland has gone haywire. Increasingly it seems like what should matter a lot doesn't matter and what shouldn't matter is all that matters.

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Water charges for a normal household would net out at €160 a year. Yet it has convulsed the country for the last few years and continues to do so. It's ridiculous.

And yes, yes, it's easy for comfortably-off people like me to dismiss €160 a year, but some people just can't pay it. And it is, apparently, the greatest injustice ever committed on the poor Irish, the most oppressed people in the world ever.

But is it really? Does it really deserve all this? Anyone could give you a casual litany of greater injustices. Why not march for the 4,000 disabled people waiting for social housing? Why not march for all the children who can't get urgent operations because of rolling theatre closures? Why not march for those with acquired brain injuries who can't get the rehab services they need to try to get back to some semblance of a life? Why not march for the thousands of children all over the country who wait years, as their window of opportunity closes, to get what is laughably termed early intervention that might help them learn to speak or to walk? Their parents and carers would march themselves, but when would they do it? Many of them don't get a second to themselves, never mind the luxury of an afternoon out at a march.

But this is not a fashionable issue among the left wing. Perhaps the people whom this affects, the ones who have to give up any semblance of a normal life or a normal career to become carers, the ones who have to bear the guilt that they are neglecting their other children, are mainly women. If this many men were being kept out of the labour force in favour of being unpaid carers for the State, you wonder if it would be a more fashionable issue.

You wonder too if it would be a more fashionable issue if it wasn't an issue that ranged across all classes. The left in this country has a very specific view of who it represents, and that is not even the working classes anymore. It is largely those on welfare. That's who it marches for. And those who are struggling due to having a child with a disability but who may not be on welfare, who might even be middle class, do not fit the bill for the left. They get a mention but they are not one of the main priorities. The main priority, it seems, is a maximum €160 a year charge for water.

Property tax wasn't a priority for the left, either. This is a tax that is a massive multiple of what water charges would be for most people, especially those in Dublin. But the left were never too concerned about that. Perhaps the clue was in the title. Property tax. A tax on property, a tax on owning something. It's practically a wealth tax. Anyone who owns anything - they're practically asking for it.

There's no doubt that some people will struggle to pay water charges, but it is not the thing they will struggle with most. Even in a non-event Budget like this, most low-paid people - and it seems old people - will practically get back the cost of the water charges.

So, in one sense we are worked up about ridiculous things, like water charges, and the prospect of stealing €15bn in taxes that were rightfully largely American, but there is a strange sense of drift about anything else. Politics seems strangely low key these days, unless the left chooses to give some energy to something.

The Dail is almost reported as a curiosity these days. Like a soap opera, except with a lot of dull characters and a plot that never goes anywhere. Talking points last week included Micheal Martin doing an impersonation of Michael Noonan and people making limp jokes about the Kama Sutra. Then there was Gerry Adams, who is suing the BBC for saying he ordered a murder, joking about the sexuality of his teddy bears. And of course Enda publicly savaging Mary Mitchell O'Connor in a way that he probably wouldn't have done to a man who brought home a second candidate in the recent election.

It's almost as if the Government has lost any sense of energy itself. Members of Government can muster a certain amount of energy for a bit of personalised argy bargy now and then, but really, apart from that, they are in torpor, just taking it as it comes. No major disaster on the horizon, just keep her handy lads. Simon is working on the housing thing and the other Simon is making some noises about health; the abortion thing is kicked down the road for a while and the Budget will be a non event.

But there's an iceberg out there. Some Fine Gael backbenchers have been pointing it out, perhaps because they have the time to see it, being unencumbered with big jobs. Even Leo has now pointed it out. He told the Mail on Thursday that: "It is essential that people on middle incomes should also benefit from the Budget. People may have good incomes on paper but due to higher outgoings like mortgages, rent, college fees and childcare and health costs, they may not be that much better off."

Of course, before he became a national icon, heartthrob and taoiseach-in-waiting, Leo was always unashamedly middle class and happy to represent the middle classes. He has always been conscious too of their importance to the economy. The rich, he famously said, spend their money on yachts, while the middle classes spend their money in shops. In other words, the middle classes pump money back into local economies. You could be cynical and say that on this occasion Leo is deliberately coming out fighting for the coping classes while Simon Coveney is stuck looking after homeless people who will never vote Fine Gael.

But the rest of Fine Gael, and indeed Fianna Fail too, could well take a leaf out of Leo's book and remember who they are, where they come from and who their constituency is. Fine Gael are not agenda setters right now, they are following other people's agendas. So they are dictated to by left wingers, by the left-of-centre TDs they made ministers. But somehow they are not being dictated to by the centre ground who voted for them.

Ireland is one of the few countries where the centre is holding and political extremes have not got a grip. The centre-ground parties would do well to mind the people in the middle. We are seeing all over the world what happens when the middle feels neglected by reasonable politics. So, maybe it's time to stop the left from dictating the agenda and to put some energy into some kind of vision that speaks to the majority in this country.

Sunday Independent

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