Monday 27 January 2020

FF back in business as 'squeezed middle' man returns home

Grumpy old men take note, Micheal Martin is saying what a lot of people are thinking, writes John Drennan

AS WE approach our first 'stealth Budget' at an ominously early stage in the life cycle of the government of all the Grumpy Old Men, politics is at an intriguing tipping point.

Even before the furore that must come over Phil's Property Tax Temple of Doom and the rest of the inevitable collateral damage in December, the political scarecrows of Fianna Fail appear to be back in business.

For some, the return resembles that scene in The Shining where Jack Nicholson batters down the door and announces "honey, I'm home". Of course, Cork's eternal "dear boy" Micheal Martin is far too nice to be that uncouth, but it is clear that when it comes to the great "Are you thinking what we're thinking?" question, a lot more people are becoming more receptive to what Fianna Fail is thinking.

Last week as Micheal eviscerated the Government over its cloth-headed ability to turn a medical scandal into an international disgrace, FF also took the initiative on Budget 2012 via the daring suggestion that it's time, finally, for the pain to be equally shared by the public and private sectors.

And you can be sure plenty will be agreeing with the former Unforgiven FF party's opposition to property tax and its counter arguments in favour of a hit on two fiscal creeps called increments and allowances. Indeed, quite a few of the supporters might even reside in the ranks of the Fine Gael TDs. . . and their borrowed voters of 2011.

We are still a long way from the glory days of Bertie. However, FF is right back in the margins of the great political power game. At 23 per cent, it still only scores in the low 30s when it comes to seats, but, a couple of percentage points more would see FF heading towards the 50 mark and should that occur, in the current fractured political field, many things become possible.

In contrast, Labour and FG are in a very different place. Though Labour will be relieved by the escalating chill which middle Ireland feels for the Sinn Fein political scientologists, that negative equity is as good as it gets for a party and a leader who is becoming dangerously detached from the political herd.

Fine Gael, meanwhile, is existing in a false state of comfort if it is happy with a support level of 30 per cent for should it even marginally dip beneath that mark, over 20 of those cherished 78 seats will be in jeopardy.

So how has it evolved that a government elected with the biggest majority in the history of the State would struggle to cobble together a simple majority if there was an election tomorrow?

It is far too reductive to suggest the return of FF is simply a matter of a dumb electorate forgetting the harm that was done to them. Instead, FF has become the chief beneficiary of the gathering revolt of the 'squeezed middle'.

The Grumpy Old Men (and a couple of token women too!) are not ignorant of the rising anger of this 'squeezed middle' over their failed promises on property tax, public sector reform and that democratic revolution that appears to have disappeared down a rabbit hole near Castlebar.

But, whilst sympathetic noises are being made, a government terrified of attacking every vested Irish interest

from the banks to the welfare classes has gambled that the political vacuum created by the apparent implosion of FF means it can leave the 'squeezed middle' to go hang.

It is, however, a risky stake, for whilst they are not as well organised as the mandarins and those cosseted bankers, the 'squeezed middle' is a very dangerous creature if roused.

Already, alert politicians such as Joan Burton have begun to realise those aspirant working class communities that used to "think Labour and vote FF", but in the last election switched to FG and Labour, are, after that brief Sinn Fein flirtation, returning home to FF.

The 'squeezed middle' is not confined to the private sector for the garda, the middle ranking civil servant, the nurse and the teacher that are too big to qualify for welfare and too small to whisper in the ears of ministers are experiencing treasonable thoughts.

You see, all 'squeezed middle' person ever wanted was a little house, another little house as an investment and a few cautious socially responsible luxuries like health insurance and a pension. Now, as we await the property tax, 'squeezed middle' person, whose pension has already disappeared down the black hole of the property collapse, is preparing to cancel the health insurance, the single holiday a year and to even contemplate the beginnings of mortgage default.

The loss of health insurance is all the more wounding for 'squeezed middle' person does not qualify for the medical card. And 'squeezed middle' man can only pray, particularly if he is an entrepreneur or one of the last of the breakfast roll gang who is actually working, that he doesn't become unemployed, for the welfare system does not exist for the likes of him. Welfare, in his view, exists for those who, on top of all the other 'waivers', will not be required to pay the property tax that will also eat into poor middle class man's savings that had been put aside for Ruairi's stealthy return of third level fees.

Ironically, Fianna Fail is also beginning to benefit from the great cull of election 2011. The Irish political system has evolved into a perfect replica of Ireland's social divide between the comfortable classes and the 'squeezed middle' dispossessed classes. But the axing of the FF ancien regime means that our 'new' government of Grumpy Old Men belongs to the former grouping.

Of course, elderly politicians such as Alan Shatter will attempt to mimic some empathy with the 'squeezed middle' but our Grumpy Old Men like Kenny, Gilmore, Noonan and Howlin are among those who have made it over the fiscal line with the added delight of €36m worth of pensions safely stashed in the saddle-bags.

In contrast to our Cabinet of multi-millionaire, multi-propertied, trust fund-cosseted, multi-pensioned career teachers and civil servants, the FF 'newbies' such as Darragh O'Brien, Niall Collins, Michael McGrath and Dara Calleary belong to that jinxed generation that is experiencing mortgage default and the rest of the delights of the age.

This has facilitated the entirely accidental scenario where FF has begun to rebuild that empathy with the 'squeezed middle' which its enemies believed had been permanently expelled.

As FF increasingly begins to say what a lot of people have been thinking, something is stirring in the political ocean. He may be wounded and scarred but the FF Moby Dick is rising to the surface and, after two years of apologies, he is ready for the sort of old-style 'rough trading' in which FF was such an expert during its previous rare sojourns in opposition.

Suddenly, politics is about to become more interesting.

Sunday Independent

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