Tuesday 18 June 2019

Martina Devlin: 'An appetite for change must bring all parties to the table'

Happy family: New Green Party councillor Claire Byrne – who is a potential candidate for mayor of Dublin – with partner Richard Harris and son Arlo Harris (3) at the count centre in the RDS yesterday after she was elected in the South East Inner City electoral area. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Happy family: New Green Party councillor Claire Byrne – who is a potential candidate for mayor of Dublin – with partner Richard Harris and son Arlo Harris (3) at the count centre in the RDS yesterday after she was elected in the South East Inner City electoral area. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

Modernity was a late guest to the Irish table but it's currently making its voice heard - no whispered "pass the sauce please and any chance of some social progress?" but a confident demand for reform.

Ours is an electorate in a hurry to see change delivered. We want liberal social mores reflected in legislation, believe climate action matters a great deal and favour change on the national question.

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Voters are tapping their feet, pointing to the clock and telling politicians to hurry up and join the contemporary age.

In a few years, the State will celebrate its centenary.

During the lion's share of those decades, it has been a male-dominated political entity with Church and State closely entwined and partition ever more embedded.

No longer.

At the count centre: Finance Minister Paschal Donohue chats with Aodhán Ó Ríordáin at the RDS. Photo: Steve Humphreys
At the count centre: Finance Minister Paschal Donohue chats with Aodhán Ó Ríordáin at the RDS. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Advances are needed still on disproportionate male hegemony but on other matters the winds of change are blowing. Leaders, ignore them at your peril.

During this latest divorce plebiscite, the Catholic Church all but looked the other way where once bishops would have thundered instructions.

Four in five voters told legislators to make it simpler (and cheaper in the process) for married couples to split up. Culture Minister Josepha Madigan, who deserves credit for steering through the initiative, said it was about "humanising" the system.

Speaking of which, if we want to continue spreading the common humanity message, it's high time the people had a chance to vote on that article in the 1937 Constitution telling women their place is in the home.

Elsewhere, voters said our politicians should be greener - in both environmental and national senses. And we'd like to see more women holding political office.

Finally, despite climate change deniers in the Oireachtas who appear to have graduated from the Flat Earth School of Politics, the message has penetrated that action on the environment cannot be delayed.

Irish politicians have a tendency to lag behind the electorate on many issues - the resounding Yes to abortion reform and marriage equality are only two examples.

The propensity was visible again in relation to climate justice, a sort of make-me-good-but-not-yet approach.

But the Greens' resurgence has led to a rush of parties keen to align themselves to greenification.

On Irish unity, voters were questioned in a Red C exit poll for RTÉ and TG4, with two in three saying they favoured it.

While the sample was only in the Republic, and a head count in the North may well provide a different response, that 65pc statistic indicates a clear preference for reunification.

For the most part, this is not an issue politicians fancy tackling. Leave well enough alone is their view - even as civic society groups, prompted by Brexit, engage in conversations about new constitutional arrangements.

It looks as if this will prove to be a positive election result for women locally and in the Europeans.

For a long time, women were under represented in the body politic. This is no coincidence but was a decision taken a century ago, when women won the right to vote and stand for office but struggled to get on to selection tickets.

Change has been glacial. Leo Varadkar's Cabinet remains light on female ministers, while Micheál Martin's Fianna Fáil party is also slow to advance women through the ranks.

Incidentally, neither party has ever had a female leader - unlike Sinn Féin, Labour or the Social Democrats.

The 30pc quota has been a game changer, but does not apply to the locals and Europeans as it does at general elections. Still, there was a solid field this time out.

Traditionally, the view advanced by the parties was that voters didn't want women. (Don't blame us, blame the electorate.)

But current results appear to show women are slightly more likely to vote for other women provided they are good candidates, and this is translating into seats.

Might there be more female MEPs going to Europe from Ireland than male MEPs? We'll know shortly.

However, women can't expect a free pass simply because of their gender.

Fine Gael's Maria Bailey is an example of a politician with suspect judgment who doesn't deserve to hold her Dáil seat, let alone progress to Cabinet.

In seeking to make a Dublin hotel pay damages because she had a couple of drinks and fell off a swing, she has embarrassed party and constituency.

"As far as I am concerned this matter is now closed," she said, after dropping a lawsuit many people regard as opportunistic. That's not for her to decide. The episode stands as a blot on her record.

What else can be taken from voting patterns? That the case for alliances has intensified.

Labour senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin floated the possibility of a left-wing merger between Labour, the Greens and the Social Democrats, lobbing some SDLP members from the North into the mix. Only pride at the top of parties was preventing such a pragmatic union, he suggested.

It was an acknowledgement that Labour has lost its bounce and needs an injection of elasticity. Whether or not he leads his party into a general election, Brendan Howlin's days must be numbered. Politics is the bloodiest of blood sports.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil should talk to each other about a merger, as well.

They have more in common than divides them, as proven by the success of the confidence-and-supply agreement.

As for Sinn Féin, the party needs to give serious consideration to its direction. The retirement of Gerry Adams as leader removes the fig leaf that it is an all-Ireland party.

It may have public representatives in both jurisdictions but the northern and southern manifestations of the party are not aligned.

The silver lining for Sinn Féin must be that 65pc indication of a pro-reunification vote. But the Good Friday Agreement makes provision for twin plebiscites on both sides of the Border. The case is far from being made in the North.

Why? One word. Reconciliation. It hasn't happened between the two communities - nor will it until positive steps are taken to facilitate it.

The challenge for Sinn Féin is to show unionism there's not just space but a genuine welcome at the unity table.

Irish Independent

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