Friday 24 January 2020

Ian O'Doherty: 'The country badly needs this election - the only problem is the options are so limited'

14/01/2020 President Michael D Higgins with Leo Varadkar TD at Aras an Uachtarain this afternoon…
Pic Gareth Chaney / Collins Photos
14/01/2020 President Michael D Higgins with Leo Varadkar TD at Aras an Uachtarain this afternoon… Pic Gareth Chaney / Collins Photos
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

It has now been confirmed that we will be going to the polls on February 8.

The rumours began late last Thursday - according to one Cabinet source, the initially preferred date of February 14 was scrapped because of the inevitable 'Valentine's Day massacre' headlines which would run in the media, while the following Friday, February 21, sees most schools on a mid-term break.

At the heart of the decision is the need to avoid the proposed vote of no confidence in Health Minister Simon Harris.

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Regardless of the date, we're looking at an election which sees the sitting government placed in a rather unenviable position.

On one level, it can reasonably argue that it was the party which dragged this country back from an abyss which had been created by Fianna Fáil. It will be understandably eager to remind voters that it was the safe hands at the tiller when it looked like the country was about to be drowned by the choppy international financial waters.

Indeed, if you wear a Fine Gael hat then you could reasonably argue that it has done a remarkable job under extreme conditions; conditions which, arguably, no other ruling party has ever had to face.

Through that lens, senior Fine Gael policy-makers must feel that the Irish are an ungrateful and unforgiving lot. After all, job numbers are up, the economy is doing better than it has done for a decade, and the Exchequer has more funds coming into it than at any time for years.

In fact, under different circumstances, Fine Gael could have been a guaranteed bet for a hat trick of consecutive election victories - no mean feat for any party in a country which likes to change things up every now and then.

But while Leo Varadkar et al might be quick to point to all the good that has happened on their watch, they remain remarkably tone deaf as to why this administration has become increasingly loathed by many ordinary people.

There are several reasons for this, and all of them are far more important than the usual voter fatigue which occurs when a party has been in power for so long.

The most important impediment to this current government's survival is quite a simple one - the lived experience of the voters and the bitterness many of them feel.

The Taoiseach can point to the improvements that have occurred under his tenure, but they are improvements which remain illusory to many people.

Loudly proclaiming that the economy is in fine fettle as we enter the Roaring Twenties doesn't mean anything to patients forced to spend days on a trolley while they wait for that increasingly elusive hospital bed.

Trumpeting the fact that job numbers have increased doesn't cut much hay with people who find themselves in low-paying, gig-economy jobs.

While they might have the opportunity to work more hours to earn a little bit more money, they know they will never be able to take even a tentative first step on the housing ladder.

In fact, many of Fine Gael's biggest boasts in the run-up to the election will be precisely the things that annoy the ordinary voter. A healthier economy means nothing to people who have seen no discernible improvement in their own lives and, ultimately, we all vote on the basis of our own experiences.

It's all well and good for Simon Harris to say that the trolley crisis is merely 'one metric' when appraising his job, but even his use of the word 'metric' was a reminder to many people of just how out of touch this current Cabinet appears to be.

The 'posh boys' jibe at Fine Gael used to seem rather unfair, but it doesn't seem that way now. There has been a striking lack of empathy from senior ministers.

We have an administration which has consistently failed to communicate with the people and, for a doctor-turned-politician, Mr Varadkar's bedside manner remains truly woeful.

The economy is meant to work for the citizens, not the other way around, and the 10,000 homeless people, and the cascade of catastrophes in the health service give the lie to Fine Gael's comforting myth that we have turned the corner.

The farcical and astonishingly badly handled controversy over the now 'deferred' commemorations for the RIC - a complex and thorny historical issue - also gave the impression that the current government is glib and insincere.

In other times, most voters would have decided that enough is enough and now is the moment to give someone else a chance. But is the average punter prepared to forgive Fianna Fáil's role in this country's ruination? Micheál Martin will certainly hope so, and if he has any chance of avoiding the indignity of being the first Fianna Fáil leader to fail to be Taoiseach, he will desperately try to focus on the current problems while avoiding any talk of the calamitous mistakes of his own party.

In fact, Fine Gael's best electoral hopes rest with the fact that it is not Fianna Fáil and it will be focusing on two core issues - bigging-up the economy and reminding people of the depression of a decade ago.

But there is a whole new generation of voters for whom the crash is but a childhood memory - and they are the generation most adversely affected by the current housing crisis.

These are the new voters who will be more inclined to give Fianna Fáil a pass for its sins of the past as they seek to punish Fine Gael for its sins of today.

There is something disconcertingly technocratic about this government. That may have come to good use with its reasonably adroit handling of the Brexit crisis, but for many Irish people that still remains an issue largely theoretical and removed from their day-to-day existence.

As a people, we need this election. The paralysis in the Dáil under the last few years of Confidence and Supply may have been a necessary by-product of trying to face a big international crisis but it has also imbued many people with an unfortunate degree of cynicism about our politicians.

Every vote in every election is precious, but the electorate has to decide whether its desire to punish the incumbents means opening the doors for a likely Fianna Fáil/Green coalition, with all the extra taxes that will entail. Neither option is particularly appealing.

Which is why this election will truly be a case of business before pleasure.

Irish Independent

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