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This is a long-term crisis, slowly unfolding

Gene Kerrigan


Since 2008, we've been giving the old parties second chances. And they've not been doing well, writes Gene Kerrigan

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Whichever way you vote next Saturday there's a good chance you'll be disappointed - but, take heart. This General Election is not an end in itself, it's a stage in a process that's been unwinding for the past 11 years.

Today's Fianna Fail and Fine Gael are still struggling with the consequences of the economic collapse of 2008. As a result, they can do little but spit bitter accusations at one another.

The 2008 collapse helped Fine Gael through two general elections - in 2011 and 2016. They had a simple strategy: point at Fianna Fail and say, "You crashed the country".

It worked in 2011.

It didn't seem to worry them that even then, with Fianna Fail as popular as a random virus, Fine Gael still couldn't get a majority.

In 2016, they added, "We fixed it", and they seemed to expect our gratitude.

We looked around at what they "fixed", an austerity-plagued country. We gave them a walloping.

For some reason, they seemed to believe they'd have it easy in 2020 - just parrot the old line about Fianna Fail crashing the country, and tack on a line about looking forward to the future.

And get their shiny new leader to flash his big, big smile.

They had platoons of marketing experts and social media geniuses.

Mr Varadkar had put the frighteners on their conservative political base, with stark warnings about how only he stood between them and the dreaded "benefit cheats" (the unemployed, the sick, the disabled, the pensioners and everyone else who was permanently under the mistrustful glare of the man with the big, big smile).

It was all going great for Fine Gael - apart from the candidates who imploded.

And the social media plan that was as daft as it was juvenile.

And the fact that voters had grown weary of that big, big, empty smile.

This last regime - with Fine Gael supported in office by Fianna Fail, so the two of them could govern the country but block anyone else from forming an official opposition - has opened some eyes.

The voters see one big party - Fianna Gael - with two wings. And know that whatever the circumstances, those two can join up - loosely or otherwise - to dominate everything.

In such circumstances, the usual political analysis (swings and percentages and where the fifth preferences might go in Ballywhatsit) is of little use.

To understand what's happening, there's a bigger picture.

The most relevant piece of analysis I know came in 2011, not from any pundit, but from poet Theo Dorgan. It's an analysis I found useful in 2011, in 2016 and it's useful now, in understanding what's happening and where we are.

Theo Dorgan was on a late-night RTE radio programme, on the night of the 2011 election. He said that nothing he'd seen convinced him that FF, FG or Labour understood the seriousness of what had happened.

Or, "how powerless the old politics is to deal with it".

When the old regime cannot govern effectively, and there's nothing solid enough to replace it, the result is a period of unease and experiment.

"I think we're going through a great change." Dorgan said. "The Irish people have dealt the first decisive blow to the old politics."

Fianna Fail, he said, were "a dead piece of roadkill".

"There's going to be, I think, a decimation of Fine Gael the next time out. People are going through a strange, slow-motion crash of the State. They've dealt with one of the great monoliths. They're now scrupulously giving the other monolith, in the old politics, its shot."

From 2011 to 2016 Fine Gael and Labour pummelled us with austerity - precisely the opposite of the policies needed to lift a stricken economy.

Fine Gael took a hiding in 2016. Labour, which had junked all its promises, was quite properly beaten to a pulp. There's no sign they've recovered.

However, voters still didn't trust Fianna Fail enough to allow them replace their discredited twin. The slow-motion crash continued.

Now, neither Fianna Fail nor Fine Gael was able to dominate a government. So, from 2016 to 2020, we've had the experiment of them holding hands.

It's difficult to over-state the sheer awfulness of the Fine Gael-Fianna Fail cartel government. It makes the Fianna Fail shower from the pre-2008 crash seem halfway competent.

No previous government would have been as helpless in the face of the housing crisis as this one has been - tied to a failed ideology.

When a child of a homeless family was photographed eating dinner from a piece of cardboard on a pavement many were angry - the government reply was a sly, failed and wholly unworthy attempt to discredit the photo.

Previous governments seriously undermined the public health service. The FG/FF cartel was cool with leaving it like that. And it watched as new horrors loom.

Medics are under so much pressure that many are emigrating. Many GPs can't take any more patients.

And the system has been so run down that there aren't sufficient GPs being trained to replace the ones scheduled to retire.

Incredibly, this Government couldn't build a children's hospital without unwittingly spending more than the cost of any other hospital on the planet - with no sign that costs won't rise even further.

Controlling both government and opposition benches wasn't enough. Dozens of times, the Dail voted for measures Fine Gael didn't approve of. The Government used the "money message" technicality to kill the measures.

This was gross abuse of parliament. It required using a mechanism never intended to defeat democratic votes of the kind passed. This was political corruption perpetrated by Fine Gael, tolerated by Fianna Fail.

It was another consequence of the old regime struggling to hold on.

Back in 2011, Theo Dorgan suggested we were facing "an interim moment in a long, unfolding process of change. A new way of thinking is struggling to be born". I think this remains true.

The new way of thinking that's struggling to be born is one that will ask this question: Why do we keep getting things we didn't vote for?

We didn't ever vote for insanely high rents and unaffordable housing.

We didn't ever vote to run down the hospitals so that people lie on trolleys for days.

We didn't ever vote for low-pay jobs, lousy conditions and the exploitation of the young.

We didn't ever vote to put 65-year-olds on the dole.

I doubt there'll be enough left-wing TDs to form a government, though that's how I'll vote. There has to, eventually, be a government that puts people before the interests of bankers and bondholders.

We may get Fianna Fail and Fine Gael joining forces. It may be the only way either can ensure they get into government.

It would be a terrible government, but it would end the pretence that they have a reason for separate existence.

Sinn Fein may be approaching a point at which it may give in to the taunts to "step up to the plate", and to play the old Labour role. If that goes wrong, they will suffer the consequence that Labour suffered after its 2011-16 betrayal of its supporters.

Meanwhile, the old FF/FG chancers wait in hope that we'll fall again for the promises carefully researched and artfully presented. Perhaps we will.

The slow-motion crash of the State continues.

Sunday Independent