Thursday 23 January 2020

Does anyone really need a general election right now?

The political system is gearing up to tell us we need to have an election, says Brendan O'Connor, but do any of the rest of us want one?

Leo Varadkar speaking to ex-FG politician Tom Hayes at the Irish Grand National at Fairy. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Leo Varadkar speaking to ex-FG politician Tom Hayes at the Irish Grand National at Fairy. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

The tectonic plates are shifting. Forces we barely understand are starting to act. As if in concert they started popping up right across the papers last week. It seems we are being softened up and told to get ready for an election.

It's little wonder at this point that this is all being done in a very discreet, subtle way. Because they know that the last thing most people want right now is an election. And none of them want to be seen as the ones who foisted it on us. So they are subtly flying kites out there. Subtly suggesting, not that they want to have an election, but that we may need to have an election.

But, of course, something in them does want to have an election. Elections, in a strange way that we will never understand, are their raison d'etre. It's like some kind of bad addiction with them. It is the very definition of insanity for them in a way.

Doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different result. But they can't help it. They are, ultimately, vote-getting machines. Getting votes is the ultimate aim of everything they do. And they need to test that ability out in the field now and then. They need to flex that muscle to make sure it works.

Right now, the mutterings mainly seem to be coming from Fianna Fail. Barry Cowen enjoys the status of a kind of tribal leader in Fianna Fail, a kind of a talisman for the rural grassroots, a keeper of the flame if you will, for a certain iteration of Fianna Fail.

Fianna Fail has many souls, and Cowen embodies one of them, the defiant one that is tired of taking the blame for the past and is tired of being ashamed.

He is saying that the natural lifetime of the confidence and supply agreement may be over.

Note what he is doing there. He is suggesting not that he wants to have an election, or indeed that anyone does.

He is merely suggesting that this is a natural event. That we must let nature take its course.

No one would be responsible for an election after the Budget, he is saying - because, God forbid, anyone would be responsible for an election - but the natural life cycle is decreeing it. God, he is more or less saying, is telling us it is time to have an election.

Bertie has been at it, too, in that gleeful, mischievous way he has adopted since Fianna Fail disowned him. Bertie enjoys the kind of status of a leader in exile now, and while he will never deliberately dump on the party, he talks about it with a kind of passive aggressiveness that suggests things were much better when he was in charge.

So he throws in things like that he used to get worried if Fianna Fail went below 38pc in the polls (they are currently at 28pc). And he says that Leo is very lucky to have Fianna Fail backing him up, whereas Bertie had to make do with the likes of Mildred Fox and Jackie Healy-Rae to keep him in power. More code for "I was better, and I didn't have it easy like young Leo".

Bertie has decreed, too, that it is time for an election after the next Budget. In his folksy way, Bertie says Fianna Fail has done its bit and it's time to move on, and he says an election will happen this time next year, because politicians hate a winter canvass.

There are even more blatant kites being flown that some Fianna Failers might back a no confidence motion in Eoghan Murphy.

They won't, of course, because that would be too messy and would be seen as too irresponsible. But it does allow them to get key quotes into the papers that sow the seeds of respectable reasons for having an election - "utter incompetence", "moving to the right".

Clearly it is viewed that Fine Gael's failure to deal with homelessness would be a good, concerned, social justice-y reason for having an election. And it could be something that would distinguish one of the big parties from the other.

Fianna Fail will be suggesting that it is the caring party of the quasi-left, the whole 'fairness' thing having worked reasonably well for it in the last election. So homelessness, with a bit of health thrown in, would be the perfect fig leaf for an election.

But, of course, that would not be the real reason for the election. The real reason for the election, for Fianna Fail, would be to see if it could get into power.

In Fianna Fail's book, a party without power, and without largesse and patronage to dispense down the ranks, is a party without a point.

Fianna Fail probably overplayed its hand slightly last week and will presumably go into retreat now, and wait for Fine Gael to make some election noises.

Fine Gael presumably wants to have an election at some stage, too, to see if it could win better next time, and not have the vague humiliation of confidence and supply. And let's face it, it must be itching to have an election with Leo at the helm. That's why it got him after all, isn't it?

They presumably think that considering it nearly won the last election with a lame-duck leader, it could storm the next one with the shiny Leo in charge. And it will be conscious it needs to do it before the shine goes off Leo.

But then you need to ask. Why does no one want to look like they are responsible for causing an election? Is it not because something in their waters tells them that people don't want one?

Do they know deep in their hearts that most people just want some stability for now, that there's enough going on? Do they feel in their waters, too, that most people are vaguely suspicious of elections now and their ability to cause instability?

Do they feel in their waters, as well, that most people don't think an election would change much, that the centre would hold?

There's not going to be any great resurgence of the left. That moment has passed. And polls consistently show the centre holding. So what we would get after an election would probably be pretty similar to what we have now for most of us. The only people for whom an election would change much are the politicians themselves, some of whom might have better jobs.

We could all feel differently in a year's time.

But right now, despite the conventional wisdom among the political establishment that we need to have one, there is no great clamour for an election.

The only ones clamouring for it are those within the political system. And it is they who are pushing the notion that we need it through all these carefully choreographed media stories.

You'd wonder, if they really wanted to let the people have their say, should they not listen to what most people seem to be saying right now, which is that, for the moment at least, we value relative stability over any more democracy.

Sunday Independent

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