Saturday 7 December 2019

This is not a protest vote, Enda, it's a call for real political reform

Taoiseach Enda Kenny TD at the count centre for the local and European elections in the TF Royal Hotel, Castlebar. Co Mayo. Photo: Keith Heneghan
Taoiseach Enda Kenny TD at the count centre for the local and European elections in the TF Royal Hotel, Castlebar. Co Mayo. Photo: Keith Heneghan
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

THIS is no protest vote. To describe the election results in such terms, or to call them a howl of frustration or anger – both adjectives used by Enda Kenny – is a fundamental misinterpretation.

It is the cry of a people who feel cheated. A people who expected reform, but all they were served up was taxes. New taxes, punishing taxes, green, white and orange taxes – because the Cabinet drapes itself in the flag as it imposes them.

Taxed to the hilt, we are told to toughen up, because another new tax in the shape of the water charge is sweeping in. No end in sight, then. The great squeeze continues.

This is no protest vote. That's a minimising label. It's an outcry of injustice, from the middle and working classes alike, to the way we are treated as an endless revenue stream. It's a withdrawal of support for the mainstream parties – whose politicians have grown remote from the people.

The Irish people have made sacrifices for almost six years. We have watched our living standards plummet. We have waved away our children on emigrant planes. We have feared for our jobs, and many have lost them. We have fretted about the roof over our heads, and some 100,000 mortgages are in distress.

We were willing to accept austerity if there was fairness. Instead, we saw austerity for ordinary citizens, and a political elite which continued to kowtow to vested interests, and to feather its own nest and that of the mandarin class.

Taoiseach, you claim that the team you lead entered Government "with their eyes wide open" – in fact, once in power, you and your ministers have had your eyes wide shut, as you ignored the repercussions of the decisions you took. The troika made us do it, you bleat, if held to account.

This is no protest vote. We know that every government faces choices. Yours took little account of fairness. Not when discretionary medical cards were withdrawn from sick children. Not when you retained that additional austerity tax, the universal social charge. Not when you taxed us with no regard to our right to value for money, and an elimination of waste and mismanagement

This is no protest vote. It is the vote of a people profoundly disenchanted with mainstream parties. The rise of the Independents and Sinn Fein has happened as a direct consequence, threatening the traditional political power base.

Taoiseach, you asked us to make sacrifices. We did. In return, we were entitled to focus, efficiency, leadership – and, above all, sacrifices to mirror ours. Leinster House was a gravy train under Fianna Fail, we expected you to derail it. Instead, it has kept going full steam ahead under Fine Gael and Labour.

This is no protest vote. We have been watching you for the past three years. Did you think us too disengaged to notice how a self-serving political class prospered? Or how incompetence was rewarded with fat pay-off cheques, or transfers to Europe? Did you honestly imagine we had no objections to water taxes based on guesstimates, and a new water authority bulging with staff and cheques for external consultants? Do you really believe we have forgiven you for the property tax imposed regardless of homes in negative equity, or without exorbitant stamp duty payments taken into account?

This is no protest vote. Don't you understand, Taoiseach, that young voters have no emotional loyalty to the Civil War politics of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail? And that anyone with left-wing leanings can no longer cast their ballot for Labour, which has wedded itself to the establishment?

Mainstream politicians have proven themselves incapable of grasping how ordinary people are struggling. Their parties are stuffed with professional politicians who have spent most (if not all) of their working lives within the political machine. And who could never survive in the real world. The Independents, and Sinn Fein, see what it's like on the ground. Whether they could make a better fist of governing is anyone's guess – but the reality is the traditional parties have failed; failed because the people are no longer on-side.

This is no protest vote. A gap yawns between politicians and their middle class constituents who don't go to clinics, and observe them now with jaundiced eyes – they no longer speak our language. Instead, they trot out cliches about how the public accepts the need for austerity.

In Britain, the 'Financial Times' has written about the rise of anti-politics. Some say that's what's happening here. But the Irish are not anti-politics, or anti-political engagement, as the proliferation of Independents running – and getting elected – demonstrates.

WE are anti business-as-usual politicians. Friday's vote was a warning shot for Fine Gael and Labour that their grip on government is loosening. From now on, Sinn Fein and Independents, however the latter group chooses to coalesce, offer a viable challenge to traditional politics.

This is no protest vote. You think we've vented steam, and everything will settle down again? Another austerity budget can proceed according to plan? Taoiseach, we're only warming up. There is more punishment bubbling under at the next electoral opportunity. And the odds of that being 2016 must surely have shortened.

This is no protest vote. To Eamon Gilmore, I say, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a political party in possession of a crushing defeat must be in want of a new leader.

To Enda Kenny, I say, shame on you for interpreting this as a protest vote – that turns the electorate into a straggle of recalcitrant teenagers. This is a call for reform. Do it soon, or the political system will be purged. It may happen anyway.

Irish Independent Supplement

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