Monday 24 June 2019

Mary Lou's piece of perestroika could reshape politics for decades to come

It is looking as if 2017 could well reshape Irish politics on many fronts for a long time. Ed Brophy considers the realpolitik of the moment

Mary Lou McDonald Photo: Tom Burke
Mary Lou McDonald Photo: Tom Burke

Ed Brophy

There are, said Lenin, decades when nothing happens, and then there are weeks in which decades happen. When Minister of State Eoghan Murphy reminded a gathering of global financiers in Dublin Castle about this last Tuesday, he was attempting to put the pivotal events of 2016 into perspective.

Little did he realise that at the same time, an act of political perestroika that may reshape our politics for decades to come was unfolding nearby, as Sinn Fein deputy leader, Mary Lou McDonald, unsentimentally ditched her movement's most cherished goal - a Sinn Fein majority government. The most immediate victim of this realpolitik is chief ideologue Eoin O Broin, leading advocate of the majority strategy and now likely to be airbrushed from the official version of history.

The majority strategy was always fanciful, but it has now been put to the sword by political reality. The pivot to participation in government as a minority partner is grounded in a hard-headed assessment of the party's prospects in the Republic. O Broin's vision was predicated on the emergence of a grand coalition between FF and FG after last year's inconclusive election, leaving the field clear for Gerry Adams as leader of the Opposition. Instead, with FF tacking to the left as the minority government's conscience and surrounded by a large group of far-left smaller parties and independents, the party is being squeezed on both flanks. Something had to give.

There is now an emerging openness within SF to coalition with FF after the next election. It cannot be seen to leave its voters standing at the altar once more. Of course, both sides will quibble and protest too much, but their common heritage, policy compatibility on tax and spending, and appeal to a similar demographic means there are more reasons to do a deal than not to - notwithstanding Micheal Martin's noble and patriotic stance against Adams's tainted legacy. However, substitute Mary Lou for Gerry and given the right numbers and a growing public dissatisfaction with the concept of minority government and there is in reality little that stands in the way of a deal.

Little, that is, unless Leo Varadkar can internalise and then seize the opportunity this political moment brings. As our old political certainties crumble and the likelihood of an FF/SF government looms into view, new dividing lines are opening up. FG with Varadkar as leader could redefine and reposition itself as the liberal, open and responsible counterweight to FF and SF's statist populism and in the process, fundamentally reshape our politics.

The conventional wisdom about last year's election is that it was a vote for 'fairness'. So, as is the way of our political system, it has attempted to provide this with the result that what voters are being served by the 'new politics' are competing versions of social democracy, which is no choice at all. As with single-crop farming, this political monoculture is increasingly vulnerable and dependent on artificial stimulants, mainly short-term wheezes to throw money at problems in an ad hoc manner.

As a result, no one is really speaking to the key 18-to-44 age demographic of swing voters with a socially liberal and economically centrist outlook, mainly working in the private sector. "The thing about these guys is that they just don't get aspiration," Tony Blair once said of his left-wing Labour critics. Based on the experience to date, you'd have to say that our 'new politics' doesn't get aspiration either.

Except perhaps for Varadkar. Polling that we in Ireland Thinks have carried out points to his electoral potency and in particular his ability to attract support from current FF voters, with almost a third shifting their allegiance to Fine Gael with Varadkar in charge. He connects in particular with the key aspirational demographic - young, urban, educated, and liberal in their outlook. With Fianna Fail support softer than has generally been appreciated, the prospect of an FF/SF coalition is likely to further increase the appeal of a Varadkar-led FG to these key swing voters.

The difficulty for Martin is that the advent of Varadkar as FG leader and the public concern about an FF/SF government after the next election boxes him in on both sides. Protest as he may that he will not enter government with SF, his party is clearly not united behind him on the issue and voters are wise enough to sense this and cut through the spin to see it for the real possibility that it is. In the same way that Ed Miliband could never credibly refute the prospect of Nicola Sturgeon's tail wagging the Labour dog during the last British general election, the prospect of coalition with SF is something that will eat away at FF. We await the inevitable attack ads with Micheal sitting in Mary Lou's pocket.

Equally, FF's highly personal attacks on Varadkar, that seek to portray him as a lightweight attention-seeker, have backfired given his clear appeal to many FF voters.

Of course, all of this is before we have really heard Varadkar set out his vision for the country. The irony is that even assuming that such a vision exists, we are unlikely to hear about it anytime soon, because as he has repeatedly said, every gesture of his is parsed for evidence of some leadership move. Even the innocent act of sitting on the toilet, we are told, gets linked to the leadership, bringing to mind Metternich's famous question on hearing of the death of Talleyrand, "I wonder what he meant by that?"

Calculated delay has long been an effective military strategy. However, none of this will fall into Leo Varadkar's lap. The year 2017 is the year that is likely to set the course of our politics for years to come. If he makes the right calls and speaks to Ireland's 'forgotten' aspirational voters then FG under his leadership can become the dominant party for the next decade.

Over to you, Minister.

Ed Brophy is practice leader with Accreate Search and co-founder of Ireland Thinks. He was previously Chief of Staff to Tanaiste Joan Burton

Sunday Independent

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