Irish politics is in crisis. The economy has been severely damaged and recovery is still far off. Old political loyalties are breaking down. The nation is near bankruptcy. In this time of great trouble we need great leadership and new thinking. The old ways have failed us and we need new ideas. Instead we stuck with old fashioned mediocrity. Irish politics is not based on ideas or visions but on keeping the status quo. We have a crisis of consensus.
Irish politics has not been ideological or confrontational since the 1930s. It is hard to explain Irish politics to an outsider as it does not focus on any clear divide. There is no left-right division as in Europe or in fact any major divide on any issue. Instead there is a cosy consensus among the main parties. Traditionally, there was a consensus on nationalist policies. All parties supported protectionist economics, the Irish language and a United Ireland. This lasted until the 1960s when instead of a divisive break, there was a gradual shift in the consensus that these policies weren’t working. Likewise the position of the Catholic Church was traditionally unquestioned. All parties agreed that the Church had a right to decide Irish social policy in a narrow and restrictive manner. No party questioned the Church’s role in education and particularly in industrial schools. In the 90s this consensus shifted and all parties agree that the Church is a marginalised force. There were no bitter battles among politicians (though there were among interest groups and individuals) but rather an unspoken agreement.
During the boom there was a strong consensus among politicians. While the governing party at the time Fianna Fail have received much (all of it deserved) criticism for its crony links with big business, particularly property developers and bankers, little mention is made of how the main opposition parties, Fine Gael and Labour went along with it. No party questioned the property boom or whether it might end. No party proposed that measures would dampen the boom; instead the 2007 general election became a bidding match over who could inflate the bubble even more. There was a consensus that the boom would last, it was only a question of who would benefit from it. Neither Fine Gael nor Labour can point to a single proposal of theirs that would have prevented the boom from crashing. A major cause of our problems is the banks, yet Fine Gael and Labour never proposed tighter regulation. The boom was marked by a consensus on economics, and this lack of questioning and thought meant we were sleep walking into disaster.
There has been a similar consensus on the crash. The big three all support austerity and are solely committed to balancing the budget. They all presume that cutting spending and raising taxes is the only way. The annual budget is met with general resignment and apathy. Little thought is given to the vast range of other issues that plague our nation. There is consensus that the deficit must be reduced and all plans are judged on their impact on the deficit. Unemployment is almost 15% yet there is a consensus to ignore this problem. None of the major parties have any policies on unemployment, inequality or poverty. There is a consensus that “There Is No Alternative”. All major politicians repeatedly hammer home the point that they are taking the tough but necessary decisions. This line is backed up by the media with few exceptions. The idea that there might be an alternative to the government’s policies has become a radical notion.
The government’s response to the Depression is devoid of any logic or plan. They literally seem to be making it up as they go along. There is no ideology, philosophy, economist or principle that would support what they are doing. There is no vision or idea as to what sort of country we want. Actions are taken but rarely questioned. Just as there was a consensus during the boom that prevented people from considering alternatives or questioning the direction we were going, there is likewise no alternative to our current actions. There is a consensus that bankers and bondholders must be protected while the poor and public sector should bear the brunt. This consensus is leading to unthinking action where decisions are not made with regard to the effect they will have but rather because there is a feeling they have to happen.
Irish politics is not based on any ideology or even any ideas at all. Instead it is based on the status quo. The parties try to change things as little as possible. Stagnation and apathy is the preferred choice. There is no overall plan or vision for the country; instead parties just react to events day by day. There is no party that is in favour of higher taxes as a principle, but neither is there one in favour of lower taxes. No party wants to expand the welfare state, but no party wants to shrink it. No party is opposed to immigration as a principle, but neither is any particularly in favour of it. No party supports the traditional backward Church teachings on social issues like gay marriage, abortion etc, but neither is any party challenging them. Instead of debate, we have stagnation where everyone agrees with each other and no one rocks the boat.
If you were to ask what are the principles of the main Irish political parties, no one could tell you. Instead they seem to be solely committed to power and saying anything to get power. Fianna Fail are masters of this and have dominated Irish politics as a result (until the last election). They are masters of “Chameleon Politics”. They can change at the drop of a hat and are all things to all people. Fine Gael’s sole principle is that it is not Fianna Fail but really wants to become it. Labour likes to pretend its left-wing but agrees with Fine Gael on nearly every issue and has more middle class than working class voters. Its main achievement in government has been to kick the poor by claiming there is a culture of welfare dependency (that was Joan Burton not Margaret Thatcher who said that) and job internships because we all know that there’s nothing as left wing as employers not paying their staff. Labour has got huge criticism for selling out, while Fine Gael has been left alone as it didn’t have any principles to sell out in the first place.
The big 3 are essentially consensus parties. They all aim to appeal to the entire electorate rather than any one section. They take all sides of every debate and are all things to all people. They don’t try to win votes but rather do everything they can to lose votes. So every speech and statement is carefully choreographed to avoid alienating even a single voter. Every policy is as watered down and as inoffensive as possible to the point where they are bland and meaningless. By appealing to everyone, they support no one, except themselves. As a result all enthusiasm is sucked out of politics until there is nothing left but disillusionment, cynicism and indifference.
There are some alternatives like Sinn Fein and the United Left Alliance (ULA). However, until recent there were marginal forces and to an extent are still treated like pariahs. Although Sinn Fein makes a lot of good points it is tainted by its association with the IRA. It is also seen as a stereotypical opposition party in that it opposes everything for the sake of opposition and makes unrealistic promises. The ULA are likewise ignored and viewed as little more than nutcase Communists. There are a handful of journalists who go against the consensus but they are relatively few and don’t always make the best points. Likewise there are a small number of economists who propose sensible alternatives but they are dismissed out of hand.
Times of crisis call for extraordinary actions. Instead Ireland is led by incompetent and bland politicians who are incapable of original thought. Instead of bold new measures we are stuck with the same old failed ideas that got us into this mess. The governing consensus is destroying our country and leaving us stumbling and falling into stagnation. What we need is debate and new thinking to reshape the country. Unless we challenge the consensus and get a politics based on ideas, principles and a new vision, then we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.