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We are smarter than those politicians - so don't be bribed by the magic money tree

Ian O'Doherty


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Dispiriting: Labour leader Brendan Howlin’s party has had its lunch money stolen by the new, hard Left which has no hope of ever getting into power in any meaningful way. Photo: Collins

Dispiriting: Labour leader Brendan Howlin’s party has had its lunch money stolen by the new, hard Left which has no hope of ever getting into power in any meaningful way. Photo: Collins

Collins Dublin, Gareth Chaney

Dispiriting: Labour leader Brendan Howlin’s party has had its lunch money stolen by the new, hard Left which has no hope of ever getting into power in any meaningful way. Photo: Collins

We're now four days away from an election that, while eagerly awaited, remains as clear as mud.

General elections are always a strange beast to predict - that's why so many pollsters routinely end up with egg on their faces. But in previous campaigns, a more definitive picture would have come to the fore.

This time? Well, this time the national mood seems to be one of more bafflement and irked indecision than anything else.

Plenty of voters know exactly who they don't want to see taking the reins of power. But it's difficult to make a positive decision when so many of the parties have so many black marks against them.

In Fianna Fáil's case, there is the small matter of bankrupting the economy and driving the country to ruination. It can employ as much revisionism as it wants, but few people who watched in horror as the nation threatened to go completely down the tubes will be inclined to either forgive or forget.

It might yet prove the case that Fine Gael's greatest electoral weapon is the simple fact that it is not Fianna Fáil, but that won't be enough to get it over the line on Saturday.

This Fine Gael administration often appears top-loaded with technocrats who don't 'do' empathy. That sense of dislocation from the general public has been echoed in its constant mantras about the economy and how it was the one who fixed a broken country. That's where its technocratic instincts really kick in.

After all, the famous political phrase 'It's the economy, stupid' worked so well for Bill Clinton in his 1992 campaign against George Bush precisely because most (but not all) elections are about the economy.

So rather than reading the mood, it hangs on to that shibboleth. We're constantly bombarded by Fine Gael's reminders that it reduced the national debt, slashed the unemployment figures and, for good measure, seems to have handled the Brexit fiasco just about as well as could have been expected of it.

But equally, as it has so spectacularly failed to learn over the last few months, there is more to an economy than spreadsheets.

If anything, constantly banging the recovery drum when we have 10,000 homeless people, children eating off the pavement and thousands of people languishing on hospital trolleys just seems more like a deeply unpleasant joke, and a most untimely reminder of the haves versus the have-nots, rather than a source of electoral gain.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the genuinely stunning recent recovery in the polls by a resurgent Sinn Féin. A party that remains utterly toxic to voters of a generation old enough to remember the activities of many of its members, it has managed to show its political smarts by targeting young people.

Sinn Féin doesn't care about those it knows will never cast a ballot in its direction. But it knows the art of politics is grabbing the undecideds, the people who are sick of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil and, particularly, young people, many of whom will be freshman voters this Saturday. Many of those first-time voters neither know nor really cares about the party's murky history.

Its surge in the polls, which sees it roughly neck and neck with Fianna Fáil, is a political recovery which Lazarus would be proud to call his own.

After all, it doesn't seem all that long ago that it ran a truly disastrous presidential campaign and then fought an even more ruinous local election in 2018, which saw it lose more than 70 councillors.

But much more than the other parties, it has been able to tap into the burning public resentment out there. It should also be noted that the numerous attacks on it by politicians and the media, while undeniably justified, have also given the party the appearance of the plucky underdog - and the Irish do like an underdog.

But even those who remain indifferent to Sinn Féin's past should be wary of it for the future. All the parties have engaged in this campaign as if they were presenting the 'Late Late' and they have a goodie bag for everyone in the audience. But even within the free-spending context of the other leaders, you don't have to be an economist to see that Mary Lou McDonald's pledge to spend an extra €22bn over the course of the next five years - which would, rather bafflingly, also include €2.4bn in tax reductions while simultaneously raising other taxes by €3.8bn -seems back-of-a-fag-packet stuff.

And, as it happens, even those who are economists are not a little appalled by the proposals.

Stephen Kinsella has warned of "overheating the economy, running a deficit, adding to the national debt and running up against our own fiscal rules".

Colm McCarthy was even more forthright and dismissed them as: "Completely insane."

There isn't a person reading this newspaper who wouldn't like to have more money in their pocket. Similarly, we all grumble with good reason about the level of taxes we pay for no apparent return. But the reality of life is that nothing is free and somewhere down the line, someone always has to pay. As every worker saddled with €100,000 of national debt will know to their chagrin, that someone is always us.

That's why it has been so dispiriting to see the giant Labour-sized hole in this campaign so far. Brendan Howlin is obviously a decent man, doing his best to prevent his party sliding into utter oblivion.

But for those of us from a working-class background who grew up trusting Labour, it has been difficult to witness its campaign match its leader's demeanour -weary and resigned. This country needs a strong left - with a small 'l' - to try to keep the two big boys onside. Instead, its only success in the last decade was returning Michael D Higgins to the Phoenix Park. Even then, the President was largely pushing an open door.

In that time, however, Labour has had its lunch money stolen by the new, hard Left - with a large 'L' - which has no hope of ever getting into power in any meaningful way, but which can now claim to speak for those workers who used to be represented by Labour.

We all like free stuff. But if the politicians aren't smart enough to learn from the past, we owe it to ourselves and to each other to resist the lure of being bribed by the magic money tree.

Because we always pay the price...

Irish Independent