Sunday 26 January 2020

Not even the recession could radicalise the Irish

Only time will tell if the dramatic political changes brought about by the financial crash 10 painful years ago are permanent or not, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

'Recessions are not times, personally or politically, for new thinking. The key need is for consolidation'. Stock picture
'Recessions are not times, personally or politically, for new thinking. The key need is for consolidation'. Stock picture

Eilis O'Hanlon

Imagine that the financial crash had never happened. It's easy if you try, as John Lennon would almost certainly not have said.

No credit crunch. No recession. The Bertie boom had simply kept on getting "boomier".

Irish politics would look very different. Which is to say, different than it looks now, though perhaps not so different to how it looked back then. Fianna Fail was flying high, winning 78 seats in 2007, and Fine Gael, whilst having risen to a satisfying 51 seats in Enda Kenny's first election as leader, was still looking at another prolonged exile from real power. There's no reason to believe that FF would not have won a fourth election in a row in 2011, and why not the one after that as well? Voters tend to conclude: if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

The old two-and-a-half party system would have endured, the only question being which of the smaller parties would make up the numbers in any coalition government. The Green Party had a bright future before the recession. Being in government with FF when the crash hit put the skids on that. They lost all their seats in the subsequent election. They're inching back now, but this has definitely been a lost decade for the Greens.

Recessions are not times, personally or politically, for new thinking. The key need is for consolidation. Having already lost so much, the last thing anyone wants is further shocks. The natural instinct is to hunker down and wait for the storm to pass.

That doesn't mean you let those deemed to have caused the crash, or at least made its effects worse, off the hook. The anger at FF was too intense not to result in an electoral rout at the first opportunity. The party which had been in power for the longest period since independence was given a brutal punishment beating at the polls in 2011, but even then Irish voters played it safe, turning to Fine Gael and Labour to fix the mess.

There was hope in that course, because both promised to take a markedly different approach to repairing the damage than the previous administration (which is why the sense of betrayal was so intense when they didn't); but there was caution too. Irish people were hurting, but not enough to tear down the whole temple.

That the Irish did not make more radical choices baffled many.

Where were the riots? Where were the protests? That shouldn't have been a surprise. People were too wounded to take risks. It's far easier to take a leap into the dark when one is feeling confident and prosperous than scared and financially insecure.

Being unjustly saddled with the lion's share of European bank debt should, by rights, have stoked discontent with Europe. In fact, it wedded Ireland closer to the continental project. Going it alone was too terrifying.

There were quiet rebellions. The death of the Progressive Democrats signalled that the radical free market, deregulation model with which the Irish had been flirting was at an end. A healthy natural cynicism about politicians also resulted in a sharp rise during the decade in the number of independents returned to the Dail.

In practice, this has changed the way the chamber looks and sounds and operates fairly dramatically; but it was still a relatively conservative response to political upheaval. It spoke of a distrust of grand schemes and parties and movements, and a desire for the familiar, the local. Can we save the regional hospital? Attract more investment? Those aims seem achievable against a backdrop of a political system that is sadly distant from ordinary concerns and buffeted by global fluctuations.

We couldn't control the bigger picture, but could seek to make change on a more modest scale. Smaller forces such as the Social Democrats and Shane Ross's Independent Alliance rose and fell accordingly, complicating the landscape and the Dail arithmetic, without ever making that big of a difference to the overall picture.

The real lost decade was for the hard left. The most severe recession in Irish history was the perfect opportunity to seize ground from the centre right. But unlike in Greece or Spain, Irish voters did not turn to the socialists. Their results at every poll remain pitiful.

This is the recurring dilemma for the left. In good times, there is no demand for radical change; but in bad times, people are afraid to take the risk. Anger is turned inward instead, finding an expression in rising depression and suicide rates rather than revolt.

The one issue which did galvanise grassroots radicalism was the establishment of Irish Water.

Being asked to pay for the water that they use infuriated a slice of Irish society to an extent that being blackmailed into paying for billionaires' gambling losses did not.

Even then, the outpouring of anger was contained within manageable levels. Ireland revolted only up to a point. It always pulled back some considerable distance from the edge, confirming the country's reputation as home to the most stubbornly bourgeois of people. (That's a compliment, in case there's any confusion). We simply wanted to get back on our feet, not trigger a political earthquake.

The biggest beneficiary of the crash electorally was Sinn Fein, which perhaps says something interesting about how the party is increasingly seen in the country. Distrusted by a wide swathe of voters, SF still more than doubled its support in 10 years, from 6pc and five seats in 2007, up to 9.9pc and 14 seats in 2011, to 13.8pc and 23 seats in 2016.

SF has advanced steadily by making a vote for the party feel like an act of defiance against an establishment which still doesn't "get" how traumatic the recession was, but without being radical enough to make that small act of subversion feel too dangerous.

SF has simply replaced Labour for the moment as the filling in the two-and-a-half party sandwich.

A decade on from the crash, Irish politics is more fractured than it's ever been, but FF and FG remain in relatively good positions to capitalise on recovery. For FF, the stink of recession will cling to it for the foreseeable future; but it could have been a lot worse.

Similarly, though the brightest and best in FG did suffer during this lost decade by having to devote their energies to crisis management rather than optimistic 21st-century nation building, Leo Varadkar does have the aura of a Taoiseach for the good times. The party will seek to capitalise on that.

But 2007 was the last time that any party polled above 40pc, and that's unlikely to change.

Ever? Only the next 10 years will tell if the lost decade just ended has fatally undone those old Irish political certainties.

Sunday Independent

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