Sunday 15 September 2019

Liam Weeks: 'All politics is national when the voters give their verdicts'

Next month's local and European elections will send politicians a key message from the public, writes Liam Weeks

Next month’s elections will be the first chance for the public to voice an opinion on Leo Varadkar since becoming Taoiseach. Here, he welcomes Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi to Dublin Castle last week. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Next month’s elections will be the first chance for the public to voice an opinion on Leo Varadkar since becoming Taoiseach. Here, he welcomes Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi to Dublin Castle last week. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Liam Weeks

All politics is local we are told, especially in Ireland, where apparently it is more local than anywhere else. And yet, for most voters, next month's local elections will paradoxically not be about the politics and issues of local government.

Instead, they will be treated as a mid-term opportunity to evaluate the performance of the national Government in Merrion Street.

Like most electorates, Irish voters tend to view their political masters with an element of disdain - and so, like in most countries, Irish governments tend to get a bit of a beating at mid-term elections.

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Historically in Irish politics, Fianna Fail has tended to be in national office when local elections come round, and so it's usually the soldiers of destiny who are on the end of a hiding.

The two recent exceptions to this were in 1985 and 2014, when on both occasions a Fine Gael-Labour coalition presided over an era of austerity, and it was these two parties who emerged bruised and battered after those years' local elections.

The public then used their local vote to send a signal to Dublin that they were not happy with the cutbacks being imposed nationally, and they proved to be a premonition of the punishment wreaked on the sitting governments at the following Dail elections of 1987 and 2016.

All politics is national, it seems.

A similar perspective will be brought to the elections to the European Parliament being held on the same day next month as those to local government.

At a time when our membership of the European Union has arguably never been more to the forefront of public consciousness and debate, you would have thought that we are likely to have our most European of European elections yet.

But the Europhiles among you (or indeed the Europhobes who want a greater debate about an Eirexit) shouldn't hold their breath.

As with local elections, the vote next month for the European Parliament will have little to do with the institution to which we're electing members.

Voters will not decide on the basis of the European party to which the candidates are, or pledge to be, affiliated. They will not decide on the basis of these parties' extensive manifestos or ideologies.

Instead, voters will treat the European elections as a classic ''second-order'' election, a term used by political scientists to describe those lesser in importance to ''first-order'' general elections.

While at first-order elections voters are more likely to act strategically and vote for their most preferred government, at second-order elections all bets are off, as far less is at stake. Voters are free to vote sincerely, and to use their franchise to whatever end suits them best. And in this case it's usually to give their verdict on the government of the day.

While it might be fashionable to berate the public for this attitude and to accuse it of a lack of political intelligence, it's their first opportunity to give an opinion on Leo Varadkar since he took over the office of the Taoiseach almost two years ago.

And we need to remind ourselves of the circumstances of that coronation. Leo Varadkar only became Taoiseach because of internal Fine Gael machinations. He has no mandate from the public. He has yet to face them as the leader of a party.

From a wider perspective, the electorate has also had no opportunity to give its verdict on the arrangement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail. In an RTE exit poll conducted after the February 2016 election, only 5pc of voters expressed a preference for a Fine Gael single party government and 13pc for a Fine Gael-Fianna Fail coalition, and yet a fudge of these two options is what emerged in May 2016 after 70 days of negotiations.

So, we have a Taoiseach with no mandate, and a political arrangement with seemingly little public backing.

And yet the maelstrom that is Brexit, which would have knocked many another government, has proven a lifeline for Leo Varadkar.

Micheal Martin's commitment to support the current agreement with Fine Gael until the Brexit issue is resolved has had the effect of insulating the Government from a public vote. While initially this might have seemed a good move for the country's sake, with the postponement of Brexit until who knows when, is this something the public wants?

In other, more normal, political situations, a housing mess, an incredibly over-expensive hospital, and a crisis within the justice department and gardai would all have proven too much for any government, let alone one which occupies less than a third of seats in the Dail.

Leo Varadkar and Fine Gael have been able to use Brexit to fend off potential crises. He didn't have to sack a minister who suggested at political policing within the gardai. Even more so, he didn't even have to face much criticism from Fianna Fail for doing little about this.

This is the current stasis in which Irish politics finds itself. And with Brexit pushing a general election away, rather than bringing it closer, the public will be restricted to local and European votes as means to have their say.

This is what could make these elections more national than ever before.

With events changing on a daily basis, it could be the one opportunity voters have to give a thumbs up or thumbs down to the current working arrangement between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. Who knows how circumstance and individuals could have changed by the time of the next Dail election.

Ironically though, if the May votes are to be seen as a plebiscite on the ''Fianna Gael'' alliance, it will be one of the few cases of a public vote the two parties may be keen to lose, especially those for the European Parliament.

With as many as five sitting TDs from Fianna Fail and Fine Gael contesting these elections, a thumbs up from the public and some seat gains could threaten their numbers in the Dail, heralding an election neither party seems to want.

The TDs Fianna Fail are running include Billy Kelleher, Brendan Smith and Anne Rabbitte, while for Fine Gael Andrew Doyle is contesting Ireland South, and Frances FitzGerald the Dublin constituency.

Realistically not all these candidates will win seats, but if as many as three prove successful (assuming they take up office in Brussels), this would eat into the Government's already wafer-thin majority.

Having lost the Louth backbench TD Peter Fitzpatrick and independent minister Denis Naughten last year, the Government is already dancing on thin ice, as the Minister of Health Simon Harris will testify - he survived a motion of no confidence in February by just five votes.

A loss of three further votes would make the situation even more precarious. To top it off, what if the opposition win the resultant by-elections, as they are wont to do?

This would be akin to the proverbial six-pointer in football parlance, where two closely matched teams play off for a win worth three points. A win for either side could result in a six-point swing against each other, and this is exactly what would happen in the Dail if the Government lost three seats to the Opposition. For example, a five vote victory for Simon Harris could be converted into a one-point defeat.

They may not publicly admit it, but both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael may be hoping for a thumbs down from the public at the European elections next month. Otherwise, we could be forced into a real national election.

Dr Liam Weeks is a lecturer in the Department of Government and Politics at University College Cork

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