In last week's Sunday Independent, Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe made a stirring case for centrist politics: "Why we must salvage the political centre - or face a bleak future". He cites some of the many achievements of the political centre: "It has enabled us to become one of the most prosperous countries in the world; created public services that laid the foundations for economic transformation and longer and healthier lives; and played an important role in overdue social change".
While such measures of progress are to be lauded, Mr Donohoe's portrayal of the outcomes of the ideology that has dominated Irish politics since the 1960s is rose-tinted and indeed colour-blind when he asserts: "The centre delivers policies that serve ordinary people; all people."
This statement is simply not true. The same political centre has left us with two-tier systems of justice, education, health and pension provision. Deficiencies in services for our most vulnerable citizens, like children with mental health problems or carers carrying impossible burdens abandoned to their fate, with perhaps two hours respite per week, represent a shameful failure of Irish politics. These and many other examples of injustice and suffering did not occur because of lack of money - this is a wealthy country - but because of a political culture that was not centrist but right-wing and populist.
The parties which dominated Irish politics for decades, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, were not right-wing in an extreme way but if any edifice leans even little to the right (or left) for the best part of 100 years it will eventually collapse. This is what happened in the recent general election with the performance of left-leaning parties. I welcomed the ''surge of the left'', not because I believe they have the answers to our problems, but because the legitimate, pent-up anger of a large proportion of the population found expression in the political process rather than in social disorder, as occurred in many countries where the people who were ''left behind'' finally said "enough" and took to rioting in the streets.
The central message of the voters to what Mr Donohoe calls the "political centre" was "enough".
There is now a narrow window of opportunity for the political system to respond to this cri de coeur or "face a bleak future", as the minister puts it. And the manifestos of Sinn Fein and other parties of the left are not the answer. The world is littered with as many catastrophic failures of left-wing ideology as of right-wing regimes, with "ordinary people" suffering most in all cases.
So, if the way forward is neither a government of the left nor a government of the right, and successive governments of the centre have failed us, then what is the solution? Mr Donohoe goes some way to answering this question when he concedes that the political centre that we have had did not deliver good government. "It has to offer more than just compromise and pragmatism", he says. "Instead it needs to be, as the great American political historian Arthur Schlesinger said, a 'fighting faith' capable of answering questions vital to society."
Commenting on their handling of the Verona and Dara Murphy shenanigans, the respected political commentator, Gerard Howlin, wondered: "What does Fine Gael stand for any more?" When it came to hard choices between political advantage and sound policy, our flabby, opportunistic political centre produced policies that stood for nothing other than holding on to power or regaining it. The Taoiseach's opening sweetener in the recent general glection campaign, a promise to increase the pay of public servants beyond the rate of inflation, was emblematic of all that is wrong with our politics.
The minister focuses on a specific issue that requires a "fighting faith" among our politicians, the matter of land availability for affordable housing. Crucially, "the public good must always precede private interests".
But if their stance on any single issue justifies the framing of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael as right-leaning, it has been their indifference to the recommendations of the 1973 Kenny Report on the pricing of land for housing. That report has gathered dust for nearly 50 years while both parties hid behind a bogus citation of the constitutional rights of land owners. Private interests have prevailed over the public good.
If Mr Donohoe wants to demonstrate his commitment to a "fighting faith" that will effectively address "questions vital to society", he could start right away by championing the adoption of Judge Kenny's recommendations and, if necessary, fight for a referendum on the matter. He might also take on the fight against the pervasive resort to spin by politicians and public officials, denounced by Justice Peter Charleton as "hideous", and the associated culture of impunity and lack of accountability.
The time has come to abandon the inherited paradigm whereby we characterise political parties as left, right or centre. These labels, freighted with all kinds of emotional baggage, serve no useful purpose in navigating the way ahead. This redundant map of the political landscape must be replaced with the fundamental construct that is now centre-stage and urgent, sustainability.
The overarching criterion against which all political manifestos should be evaluated is whether they reflect a populist response to "questions vital to society" or whether they reflect the necessary "fighting faith" likely to deliver a sustainable supply of housing, a sustainable beef sector, a sustainable public health service, a sustainable natural environment, a sustainable national debt, a sustainable industrial policy, a sustainable capital city… and, above all, sustainable peace and social order.
Even the masters of the universe in Davos now recognise that economic prosperity is jeopardised by social inequality and injustice. Minister Donohoe's writings reveal that he knows this too, so in mapping a way forward for Irish politics he could do worse than retrieve from the Fine Gael archive Declan Costello's Towards a Just Society, which espoused the idea that ''a just society is a (sustainably) prosperous society'' or, put differently, ''an unjust society will never be a sustainably prosperous society''.