Tuesday 22 October 2019

Liam Weeks: 'The political divide deepens between capital and country'

Recent election results show liberal-leaning Dublin is increasingly at odds with the rest of Ireland, writes Liam Weeks

'The left between them now have strong majorities in Dublin City and Fingal, and are not far off this in South Dublin and Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown councils' (stock photo)
'The left between them now have strong majorities in Dublin City and Fingal, and are not far off this in South Dublin and Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown councils' (stock photo)

Amid all the societal upheaval of the past few decades, there is much talk of a changing Ireland, of a changing politics. The recent referendums on marriage equality, abortion and divorce have all been cited as indisputable evidence of the changed times in which we live.

As has the tumult in our party politics. Gone, we are told, is the so-called two-and-a-half-party system which had been a pillar of stability since the 1930s. In its place is a multi- party system to represent a new plural Ireland.

Where Fianna Fail and Fine Gael once attracted four out of five first preferences, they now command the support of only half the population.

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Ireland was once no country for the left, but the combined support of the various candidates and movements on that side of the ideological spectrum has grown to more than 30pc. And this is not to mention the recent Green rising.

But this change is not universal, and the national figures distort what is really going on across the country. Yes, there is change in most quarters but it has accelerated exponentially in Dublin and constitutes only very piecemeal change beyond the commuter belt.

The result is that talk of a changing Ireland is misplaced. What is actually happening is that the changes have exposed significant divisions in society to the extent that we can now speak of two Irelands - one in the capital and one outside it.

This political divide between Dublin and the rest of the country is not new. Since the 1990s, Dublin has increasingly become a liberal, left-wing constituency and a far different political environment to that of rural, conservative Ireland. But, heretofore, these differences were evident solely in referendums and were rarely reflected in party representation.

So, while there was evidence of a liberal-conservative divide in votes on abortion and divorce in the 1980s and '90s, this polarisation was not apparent at Dail elections. Barring a few local exceptions, electorates across the country voted pretty uniformly and we could speak of genuinely national party politics.

But this has been changing. In Dublin, the era of Charlie Haughey's Fianna Fail controlling the northside and Garret FitzGerald's Fine Gael the southside are but distant memories. While the two parties under these leaders won all bar six seats in Dublin at the November 1982 Dail election, they won only 20 of the capital's 44 seats in 2016.

Likewise, in the recent local elections, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail between them won only 70 of 183 seats on the four Dublin councils. Dublin has gained an additional 50 councillors since 1991, but the Old Firm have won only two of these seats. The left between them now have strong majorities in Dublin City and Fingal, and are not far off this in South Dublin and Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown councils.

From this perspective, politics in the capital is no longer the binary option of Charlie or Garret. It is now truly pluralistic. That is one Ireland, what some might call a new Ireland.

Outside Dublin, things are rather different. In this old Ireland, you're either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael. If you're annoyed with them, you vote temporarily for an independent, usually one aligned with your preferred party. In some cases, especially in the Border counties, you might now vote for Sinn Fein but, in general, any type of new-fangled environmental or left-wing party doesn't get a look in.

In Connacht, for example, last month there were only 14 councillors elected outside of Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and independents. In the Ulster counties, there are only two councillors outside of this trio and Sinn Fein.

The non-traditional left in total won 17 seats in Munster and 10 outside of the commuter counties in Leinster.

This pattern is even more stark at Dail elections. Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and independents won 25 of 28 seats in the seven Connacht-Ulster constituencies in 2016 (Sinn Fein won the remaining three). The same three won 33 of 43 seats in Munster, and 32 of 43 in Leinster.

This is the political reality of the changes in this country over the past 30 years. We now have one Ireland where the civil war is irrelevant for the vast majority of voters, who have embraced left-wing, liberal and perhaps environmental politics. For this Ireland, issues take precedence over candidates.

But we also have another Ireland, which remains wedded to the traditional structures of our party politics. Voting behaviour is motivated by different factors here. In particular, candidates reign supreme over issues.

This was evident in the RTE exit poll carried out after the recent elections, where voters in older Ireland highlighted a candidate's ability to stand up for ordinary people as significantly more important than their stance on issues. In Dublin, this pattern was reversed, as voters in the new Ireland were twice as likely to rate a candidate's position on issues being more important than their ability to stand up for people. This is why the Healy-Raes get elected in Kerry and the Greens in Dublin.

If this division between the Irelands grows deeper, it may become increasingly difficult to speak of national politics, and electoral competition may be more likely to be between parties of different regions.

The problems this would pose for the country as a whole would be considerable.

The centralised nature of Government in Ireland means all policy decisions flow from Dublin. With our national media also primarily Dublin-based, there is a genuine concern that the policy agenda being driven would be that of the new Ireland in the capital, which does not necessarily align with that of the older Ireland outside of it.

Take the renewed focus on green policies. The parties in the Dail have been scrambling to cosy up to the Green Party and offer their own alternatives to tackle climate change. But all this is based on the belief there has been a swing in public opinion towards environmental politics. It ignores the reality that the rising was limited to the new Ireland. In the older Ireland, it was little more than a trickle. The Greens won no seats in the Ulster counties, none in Connacht outside of Galway, five outside of the commuter belt in Leinster, and five in Munster outside of Cork.

So to implement environmental policies now would be to cater for the preferences of new Ireland, which might well be against the wishes of older Ireland. More so, the emergence of two Irelands threatens to fragment the country and could create problems for the accountability and authority of Government decisions, especially if older Ireland views them as new Ireland enforcing its will on the wider population.

In an era of fragmenting states across Europe, older Ireland might demand more devolution as a compromise to counteract the supremacy of new Ireland.

This is a potentially unfathomable outcome, and one that would not suit either Ireland. Forget talk of a united Ireland. It may be far more pressing to focus attention on the divide in our own jurisdiction. Two Irelands is not better than one.

Dr Liam Weeks is a political scientist in University College Cork

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