Wednesday 16 January 2019

A result, at last, that could trigger meaningful political change

Sinn Fein deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald
Sinn Fein deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald
Joan Burton at City West on a tough day at the office for Labour. Gareth Chaney

James Downey

In the European and local elections, the voters have done something that all the politicians, all the experts, all the pundits have failed to do for generations. They have changed our dreary political landscape. Radically? For sure. Permanently? Perhaps. Let's hope so.

And let's hope so regardless of whether or not the rise or fall of any party, or individual candidate, pleases us. Any revolution produces victors and victims. And the elections have given us a result far more revolutionary than the misnamed 'democratic revolution' of 2011.

Ever since independence, with only a few blips along the way, our political system has been dominated by the 'traditional' parties. In the latest elections, all three – for present purposes, I include Labour – have suffered in varying degrees, while two new(ish) forces have arisen.

Labour's near-meltdown was thoroughly deserved. Its leaders will think that comment unfair and cruel. It has spent the last three years trying to do its best. Its best was not good enough, and it must take the consequences.

Its great problem now is to understand these consequences, immediate and long-term. First, it must accept that its very existence is at stake, and that threats to its survival will increase, not diminish.

Secondly, its response must be immediate, and commensurate to the threats. It will not thrive by claiming a fancied or even a real increase in its influence within the Government. Its leaders must stop making excuses, take a searching look at themselves, and plot a new course.

And if it does all that it will still take a minimum 10 years to bring itself back to the position it occupied in 2011.

Labour, notoriously, has seldom been a lucky party. By contrast, Fianna Fail enjoyed spectacular luck throughout most of its history. But that seemed to run out in 2011.

Since then, the party has made a bit of progress and profited from some more strokes of luck. Who but Fianna Fail could have made a hash of the Blackrock nominations and yet taken two council seats in the ward?

But Lady Luck is unreliable, and the progress has been insufficient. The party has profited little from the Government's gross mistakes. It lacks energy and new ideas. And people who should know better spend too much of their time criticising the leadership. Even Fine Gael's position is far from comfortable. In the weeks before the elections, it began to appear that the voters' appetite for revenge on the Coalition might not be confined to the junior party. So it proved.

Now Enda Kenny and his advisers must take care how they read the election results.

In the run-up to the general election, the pressure to relax austerity will be close to unbearable. But that would be dangerous while the European and global economy remains unstable. There is no guarantee that the voters would respond favourably.

Finally, what of the winners?

Sinn Fein did fairly well and will do better when Mary Lou McDonald takes over the leadership. This party has more to its advantage than brass neck and smooth talk.

It has a formidable organisation, and very bright backroom boys and girls. It knows how to find successful candidates. It appears to have a discipline so tight as to make the "democratic centralism" of the old Workers' Party seem almost gentle. And it is determined to win its way to a place in a future coalition.

But there were other election winners. Newstalk's Ivan Yates – trust an old hand who has not lost his touch – was quick to spot them.

As individuals, the Independents had been easy to spot since 2011. In the present Dail, some have made themselves impossible to ignore. After the general election, they will be harder to ignore than ever. Yates took matters a step further. He put forward the intriguing idea that the Independents could all come together, forming a group across the (mostly irrelevant) ideological spectrum from Roisin Shortall to Shane Ross. He reckoned such a group could command 25 Dail seats.

That level of representation would put the new group (or new party?) in the same category as Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein. This would mean much more than offering another possibility among the options for the composition of a future coalition. It would epitomise the fundamental change in the political landscape that so many small parties tried and failed to bring about. Irish voters are conservative. They fear change. But this time, they all but wiped out one party and opened the door for another. That move was brave.

Let's hope it is rewarded.

Irish Independent Supplement

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