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Don't believe the hype: election was a victory for the centre, not for the Left

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Fianna Fáil’s Lisa Chambers celebrates winning a seat in Enda Kenny’s Mayo heartland. (Photo: Gerry Mooney) General Election 2016 has not seen a shift to the left – Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael’s combined seat tally is almost the same as it was in 2011

Fianna Fáil’s Lisa Chambers celebrates winning a seat in Enda Kenny’s Mayo heartland. (Photo: Gerry Mooney) General Election 2016 has not seen a shift to the left – Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael’s combined seat tally is almost the same as it was in 2011

Fianna Fáil’s Lisa Chambers celebrates winning a seat in Enda Kenny’s Mayo heartland. (Photo: Gerry Mooney) General Election 2016 has not seen a shift to the left – Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael’s combined seat tally is almost the same as it was in 2011

A diplomat recently expressed wonderment to me that there are no right-wing parties in Ireland. He wasn't thinking primarily of the likes of Geert Wilder's anti-immigration Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, although he did have it in mind. He was also thinking of centre-right parties like Nicolas Sarkozy's Republicans in France.

He considered Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to be centrist parties without any real ideology. The Anti-Austerity Alliance calls them both 'right-wing' because, well, they have their doubts about Sinn Féin's ideological purity and flat out deny the left-wing credentials of Labour.

This election wasn't a battle between left and right as such at all. It was a battle between the centre and the left and, seen in this light, it was very much a victory for the centre, especially when you consider the big votes that went to Independents like Michael and Danny Healy-Rae, Mattie McGrath and Michael Fitzmaurice.

The election has been called an "earthquake". It was a world-shattering earthquake for Labour and a mid-sized one for Fine Gael. But it wasn't an earthquake that shifted Ireland on its axis from right to left or centre to left.

What really happened was that Fine Gael's seats were redistributed to Fianna Fáil, and Labour's seats were redistributed to the rest of the left.

In 2011, Fine Gael was returned with 76 seats and Fianna Fáil with 19 seats. That adds up to 95 seats. This time, Fine Gael has won 50 seats to Fianna Fáil's 44 and that adds up to 94 seats, but in a somewhat smaller Dáil. Left-wing parties and Independents will have around 50 seats.

The 31st Dáil had 166 seats. This one will have 158 seats. So the centrist parties between them have a higher percentage of the total, 59pc this time versus 57pc last time.

The left-wing presence in Leinster House grew in 2011, not 2016. Fine Gael didn't pick up anything like the number of seats from Fianna Fáil that it should have in 2011. A lot of the seats went to Independents or to Labour instead.

Numerically, the left will be no stronger in the 32nd Dáil than in the 31st Dáil but it will be much more fractured and much, much louder. The parties and Independents on the left will be far weaker in that they will be much further from the levers of power.

In other words, this was not the much-touted big breakthrough election for those on the left. It only seems that way because they are getting lots of airtime, they are making lots of noise, because a big section of the commentariat want to make it look that way and because many presenters ask them affirming and sympathetic questions.

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It was a good election for the pro-life cause, however. Despite the best efforts of certain sections of the media to make repeal of the pro-life amendment an election issue, the vast majority of voters didn't really care one way or the other.

We can argue till the cows come home about why so many pro-choice politicians lost their seats (Alan Shatter, James Reilly, Alex White, Ciara Conway, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, etc), but the fact is they lost their seats.

We can argue till the cows come home about why almost three-quarters of the Fianna Fáil TDs who got elected or re-elected are pro-life, but the fact is that they are pro-life.

This means pro-choice TDs are much further from the levers of power than they were, and whether in coalition government or propping up a minority Fine Gael government, a lot of pro-life TDs will be much closer to the centre of power than before. So long as they can resist incessant media pressure, a referendum on the Eighth Amendment suddenly looks further away than it did last week.

It has been said that the electorate now leans in favour of increased public spending over tax cuts. But Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil both promised tax cuts, even if their specific proposals differed from each other. Labour also promised some tax cuts, not that anything could save Labour.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will both pay a severe price if they don't deliver some tax cuts. People may want good public services, but they also want their net take-home pay to increase. This can happen through pay increases and/or tax cuts. People would prefer to have both. But if they don't get either, better public services won't impress them very much.

This is simply a fact. People rightly want a due reward for their efforts. The reason the tax cut which people recently saw in their take-home pay didn't impress them much, is because it was small.

The economy, of course, isn't yet strong enough to do much more that that, which is really the point. The recovery, such as it is, isn't being felt by enough people and for many of those who have benefited from it, the effect is still weak.

One thing the left can be happy about nonetheless is that there is undoubtedly considerable demand for better public services.

There is a key point to be made here, however; better public services do not necessarily mean increased spending. Health spending is a case in point.

The European Commission has just published its latest annual report about Ireland. In its understated way, it is damning about our health system.

Contrary to popular belief, public health spending in Ireland is very high, the second-highest in the EU as a percentage of Gross National Income at 8.3pc, which is only 0.1pc behind the country which spends the most on health, namely Denmark.

But we get a very poor return on all this money. We are only middle ranking among developed countries when it comes to life expectancy at birth and life expectancy at 65, but we are in the bottom third in terms of other health indicators like avoidable hospital admissions and cancer survival rates. Not good.

The poor return we get for all that money is made worse by the fact that we have a young population by EU standards, and by the fact that a higher than usual percentage of us have private health insurance and therefore cost the public purse less than we might.

I hope Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil do go into coalition together. If they don't do so, then maybe the bond markets will force them to by raising interest rates.

And if they do form a government, I hope they will give us tax cuts consistent with balancing the books and not overheating the economy, and that they will concentrate on giving us better value for all that public spending rather than simply increasing public spending.

This is what a centrist, as distinct from a left-wing, agenda should deliver.


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