Thursday 23 January 2020

Jody Corcoran: Era of austerity is inviting outsiders in from the cold

The rise of extreme parties across the EU, including Sinn Fein, could mean the start of a dangerous new era

AS a political party spanning the hard left and hard right, neo-nationalist Sinn Fein is well placed to take advantage of a sea change in attitude across Europe.

The sea change represents an immediate threat to the mainstream, which has, so far, failed to address the concerns of voters who are heartily sick of the status quo.

The status quo is austerity for several more years. For that, the mainstream has itself to blame. It got us into this mess and has shown itself incapable of getting us out.

With a large majority, the Government seems unconcerned about the rise in support for Sinn Fein -- and its cohorts across Europe -- as though it is a temporary blip.

But the ballot box cannot be ignored. It is the ballot box that has transformed the debate in Europe.

The level of complacency here, however, may see the fiscal compact treaty defeated. If that happens, Sinn Fein alone will seek to claim a form of credit.

The fiscal compact itself has become almost irrelevant, not that it was ever hugely relevant. The likely new president of France has all but rendered it so. In doing so, Francois Hollande has left the Government here badly exposed.

In the first round of the French presidential election last weekend, the hard left and hard right took one-third of the vote; in the second round, on May 6, supporters of the National Front, which campaigned to withdraw from the euro, will decide the outcome.

Also on that day, in Greece, the communists and Trotskyites, with the Greens, are set to take power; in the Netherlands, the Government fell last week when the far right of the coalition refused to support austerity measures.

Spain has fallen into recession; in Italy, a government of technocrats has secured more time to implement the changes intended.

In Ireland, meanwhile, the Government last week got another gold star from the troika: keep turning the screw, lads.

It is against this background that Sinn Fein has soared in popularity, according to the opinion polls, to become the second most popular party in the State, with twice the support of Labour.

Voters have a short memory. The rhetoric espoused by Sinn Fein now is not a million miles from that of Labour before the last election: Labour's way, not Frankfurt's way.

Similarly, Francois Hollande may be forced, like Eamon Gilmore, to back away from some of his more populist campaigning, although there is no denying Hollande has a point. Austerity alone is not working.

After the first round, but before his head-to-head with President Nicolas Sarkozy next month, Hollande has subtly changed his position; he now wants to add a pro-growth dimension to the fiscal compact as negotiated.

Belatedly, the rest of Europe is waking up to this too, although it remains to be seen what, if anything, it is prepared to do, or what in reality it can do.

To water down the fiscal compact would be difficult for German Chancellor Angela Merkel to accept. But the collapse of the coalition in the Netherlands has left an impression on the fiscal hawks. As a result, Germany and the ECB will probably tolerate some slippage in near-term fiscal targets.

There remains, however, huge scepticism that the eurozone can grow unless it corrects what many see as fatal flaws in the design of the single currency.

To date, the mainstream has shown itself to be remarkably tardy in this challenge. The longer it waits, the more popular Sinn Fein, and the other extremes throughout Europe, will become.

It is now virtually certain that Sinn Fein will help form, if not lead, the next Government here. Rather than challenge Sinn Fein now, however, the political establishment, in a way, still seems intent on a policy of embrace.

The latest utterings of the former Fianna Fail deputy leader, Eamon O Cuiv, have taken the embrace to a new level. He said last week that Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein now represented the republican tradition in Dail Eireann.

O Cuiv said it was an accident of political history that Sinn Fein was a separate party. "They did not recognise Dail Eireann in 1926 and they went their separate way; they now are taking their seats in Dail Eireann."

Micheal Martin really needs to act firmly if Fianna Fail is not to be be usurped from without and within; Fine Gael and Labour need to assist in this regard.

More immediately than that, however, the mainstream in Europe really needs to get its act together if the Continent is not to be plunged back into the dark ages from which it emerged at its most desperate hour.

Sunday Independent

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