Well, the votes are counted and the government got the kicking it deserved for its complacent touting of a “recovery” that had not impacted on most people’s lives. This was clearly a vote against the governing parties. But what, if anything, was it a vote for?
Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole has claimed that the election represents “an enormous shift to the left”. Fianna Fail’s relative resurgence is, he argues, explained by its social-democratic-style embrace of “fairness” and its pledge to increase public investment.
Versions of this message were also supposedly put forward by every party except Fine Gael and Renua, and by most independents. Thus, O’Toole concludes that what most of the electorate “voted for is a profound shift of priorities, towards decent services, a fair use of public resources and a reversal of the drift towards inequality”.
TASC policy analyst Rory Hearne makes a very similar argument, namely that people have “voted for a fair and equal Ireland which has high-quality public services”.
This is a tempting interpretation of events. It is also almost certainly wrong.
First, much of the Fianna Fail (and independent) vote will have been based on local concerns and attitudes towards individual candidates rather than any national vision. A vote for a Fianna Fail TD will more likely have been because she was seen as a good constituency representative than because a picture of Michael Martin and the word “fairer” appeared on the same poster.
Further, an analysis of the RTE exit poll suggests that there was a large degree of ideological similarity between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail voters, with the latter only marginally more concerned with equality issues. (Labour voters fit a very similar pattern.)
And while some of the independents elected are obviously left-wing, at least as many, including the biggest vote-getters, are definitely not. It is highly unlikely that anyone voting for Michael (“independent.ie/irish-news/election-2016/lowry-ill-raise-a-glass-of-brandy-to-the-proud-people-of-tipperary-34493376.html">Lord”) Lowry or for Shane Ross, for example, was motivated by a vision of a more equal society.
This is not to say that change is not happening.
Hearne is quite right to point to the fact that “The establishment parties (Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour) received their lowest combined support in the history of the state,” going from 80 percent in the 1990s to 56 percent this year. The combined seats won by those three parties amounted to 148 as recently as 2007, but will come in at not much over 100 this time round (recounts are proceeding as I write).
But not all those lost votes have gone left; many have gone to right-wing independents. Gene Kerrigan hits the nail on the head when he independent.ie/opinion/columnists/gene-kerrigan/welcome-to-slowly-evolving-change-34493448.html">says that people “have gone all over the place, as they desert those who betrayed them”.
“All over the place” is a better description of the Irish political landscape than a claimed social-democratic majority.
Antonio Gramsci might have been describing Irish politics today when he wrote that “the old is dying and the new cannot be born”. The old system of party politics is certainly dying but the new, justice-orientated society imagined by O’Toole and Hearne is very far from being born.
“In this interregnum,” Gramsci went on to say, “a great variety of morbid symptoms appear” – which is not a bad description of the Healy-Raes.
I share the vision of a fairer society. But there remains an enormous task of public education and persuasion to win most people over to the practical project of putting in place a “fair and equal Ireland”. This has to be worked for, not wished into existence.