In many ways, it’s usually quite difficult to get excited by Irish politics. For one, it can feel insignificant and boring compared to, for example, the seemingly never-ending Brexit hell the UK has plunged itself into, or the epochal presidential election campaign that is now shifting into gear in the US. More pertinent though has been the sense that nothing could ever really change, that we are doomed to a never- ending cycle of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael governments. The minor left-wing parties provide some variety as coalition partners, but all they really do is take turns to eagerly offer themselves up as sacrificial lambs the moment things go wrong, without any lasting damage to any of the major parties accruing. All this creates the sense that if you want a vision of Irish politics, just imagine a shoe with the words ‘if you’d just let me finish my point, I didn’t interrupt you’ inscribed upon it, gently tapping on a human face-forever.
Things have felt different of late, however. In the lead up to this weekend’s General Election, there is real engagement and anger. Younger generations especially are fed up. We have seen Dublin and many other urban centres become close to unliveable, we are sick of seeing our friends emigrate and we are outraged by the moral stain of the homelessness crisis. It feels like something is in the air this time, and recent polls have remarkably shown Sinn Fein neck and neck with Fianna Fail and ahead of Fine Gael. An unprecedented broad-left coalition is now a possibility, and at the very least the beginnings of a real left-right divide in Irish politics are emerging. Everything is ‘horribly, brutally possible’. With all that in mind, it’s a good time to survey the options available to voters and consider the ramifications of the possible outcomes.
In what could generously be called a bold choice, Leo Varadkar has opted to deploy what I like to call the Sideshow Bob tactic and pin his party’s hopes on voters ignoring their guilty conscience and instead giving in to their secret, deep longing for cold-hearted blueshirts to lower taxes, brutalise criminals, and rule them like a King. The problem is that for this to work you have to appear competent, and Fine Gael’s campaign has been an exercise in incompetence. From profoundly embarrassing attempts at engaging in meme-culture, to a general tone that pretends everything is rosy and ignores the lived reality of so many people, Fine Gael have offered us nothing but crumbs from the top table and act like we should be grateful for that.
Micheál Martin has spent a good deal of this campaign attempting to differentiate his party from Fine Gael. He has in effect been wearing a shirt with the words ‘We are not the same as Fine Gael’ printed on it, whilst chiding observers for asking so many questions that are already answered by the shirt. Despite this, their polling position indicates that they are still probably the best placed to lead the next government, even if this is from a much weaker position than they would have thought a few weeks ago. At least in rhetoric, their policy offerings are probably slightly better for our generation than Fine Gael, but given they have spent the last four years propping them up it’s hard to take those promises very seriously.
In the minds of a worryingly large number of people, Sinn Fein have managed to trick us all. Sure, they may talk a good game on social justice, housing and inequality, but as soon as they are in power Mary-Lou McDonald and her cabinet will don their balaclavas, announce the dictatorship of the IRA Army Council, and an undead Martin McGuinness will rise from the grave vowing to crush the Brits once and for all. The reality is that voters considering Sinn Fein for the first time are keenly aware of their past and their limitations but see them as the only alternative. They are weary of them, but they are also impressed by the likes of Pearse Doherty and Eoin Ó Broin, whose housing policies would make a very obvious and tangible difference to the lives of many people. Indeed, Sinn Féin have possibly underestimated how much purchase they would get this election, with the decision to run only 42 candidates damaging their prospects of leading a government. The possibility remains that they could immediately undo all the good will they have built up, as they have yet to rule-out going into coalition with Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. However, if any alternative to the old parties is to emerge, they will be at the head of it.
Labour have some very good policies, especially in the areas of housing, and have been refreshingly honest on the need for taxes to properly fund public services. Despite this, there is something almost endearingly pathetic about their campaign. Brendan Howlin is reminiscent of Gil from the Simpsons desperately begging you for a preference; any preference! Even a number 5! The sense remains that the years of coalition with Fine Gael and the subsequent drubbing they took in the last election has completely broken their spirit, and they could well nix any progressive coalition by refusing to work with Sinn Fein.
The environment is obviously one of the most important issues for young people in this election campaign, and for that reason a Green surge would be good news. But it is worth noting that despite notionally standing for only one thing, or perhaps because of this, the Greens are an amusingly contradictory political party. On the one hand you have the liberal-ish hippy types who probably would otherwise vote Fine Gael but feel too guilty as represented by the party leadership in Eamon Ryan, a group who–– don’t forget–– brought the Greens into coalition with Fianna Fail only 13 years ago. On the other hand, there is an increasingly influential group of mainly young, full-on anarcho-communists calling for the overthrow of capitalism as the only way to fight climate change. Candidate Saoirse McHugh received some criticism for an interview in which she spoke about ‘sharpening the guillotines’, but the thing is – more and more young people actually agree with her.
People Before Profit-Solidarity
People Before Profit and Solidarity are actually two different groupings representing fronts for two different Trotskyist socialist parties that have historically spent much of their time sniping at each other for reasons deeply confusing and boring to anybody without an incredibly keen interest in the minutiae of Irish far-left politics. Nevertheless, they have to some extent gotten their act together and are offering a united front this election. Even with the afore-mentioned division, the likes of Richard Boyd-Barrett, Brid Smith and Paul Murphy (who even more confusingly has recently split from Solidarity, but remains in the overall PBP-Solidarity umbrella) have been important voices for the left in the Dail. They offer the most unabashedly left wing manifesto out of any of the parties, and should a progressive alliance emerge out of this election, they will be vital in keeping Sinn Fein honest.
Aontú/Renua/Assorted Swivel-Eyed Loons
Oh dear God please no.
Photos: Reuters,PA Media, BBC, Aidan Crawley & Collins respectively.