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Monday 2 October 2023 Dublin: 11°C
Progressive Democrats (PD) Mary Harney and Michael McDowell in 2007.
Opinion Boston, or Berlin? No, we'll take Sweden or Denmark - this was our ‘Hygge’ election
A status quo government is unlikely to represent the need for change, writes Dr Rory Hearne.

THE UNPRECEDENTED DEMAND for change on housing, homelessness, health, childcare, pensions and climate change, expressed by voters in the General Election cannot be ignored.

Underpinning the shift in political party support was a desire for a radical change in the direction of government policy. For decades, there has been a debate over what the ideological view of Irish people is on public services, the state, society, and economy.

Are we in favour of US-style pro-market, individualism, small state, low taxes and high inequality? Or are we in favour of prioritising society and quality of life, public services, regulating the market (particularly housing), public investment, higher taxes and reducing inequality?

Boston, or Berlin?

The question posed in July 2000 by the then Enterprise Minister and Progressive Democrat, Mary Harney was Boston or Berlin? She maintained at the time that we were ideologically closer to Boston.

The Boston view was most clearly expressed by her former colleague, Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell in 2004 when he maintained that inequality was both inevitable and an incentive.

But this election was a definitive (and particularly for those in their 40s and under) vote in favour of a more equality oriented, social-democratic type society and economy, like Sweden and Denmark.

This was our ‘Hygge’ election (the Danish concept of ‘cosiness’) – we want the affordable public childcare and quality of life of Denmark, the Vienna public housing model, a  universal public health system, and to end homelessness like Finland.

Two-thirds of the exit poll respondents (65%) said they were in favour of increasing spending on public services instead of tax cuts. People see our society being fractured and disintegrating and are not just concerned about themselves –they do not see inequality, poverty and homelessness as inevitable, ‘normal’ and resulting from the individual’s fault.

They want the structures – of government, of the economy – to help people and solve social issues. This indicates that a profound cultural and ideological shift has taken place in Ireland.

This was a vote for a caring society to be prioritised over an inequality generating economy. It was a vote that extended the desire for rights and equality in our personal lives and relationships (visible in Marriage Equality and Repeal) into our society and economy – in housing, health, and jobs.

A failed political system

Many people are disgusted looking at the political pantomime and infantile games of the larger parties refusing to respect the mandate for change that was voted on while the social crises worsen.

Families are being evicted into homelessness daily, renters are struggling and a generation is being locked out of having their own home and as a result, their life is on hold, their future is slipping away from them, children are growing up in hotels and hubs with devastating impact, early years educators are leaving their jobs because of the lack of a decent wage, the health system needs urgent support, while major inequalities exist such unacceptable levels of child poverty.

The public wants our politicians to cop on and grow up, talk to each other and work together to address these issues.

This election was a social earthquake in Irish terms, where the two dominant centre-right parties of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil received their lowest ever combined support, at just 43% of voters.

6478 Sinn Fein rally Sinn Fein rally. Pictured are (l to r) Pearse Doherty, Michelle O'Neill, Mary Lou McDonald, Eoin O'Broin and Louise O'Reilly as Sinn Fein held a rally in Liberty Hall, Dublin.

Not all about Sinn Féin

While the focus has been on Sinn Féin (who received 24.5% of first preference votes), it is important to highlight that the vote for major change included an additional 20% voting for the Social Democrats, the Greens, PBP, Labour and Left independents.

Combined, then the Left received around 43%, its highest ever support, and on par to the support of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. Initially accepting of the groundswell for ‘change’ expressed in the election, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and many in the media have been trying to undermine it since.

Sinn Féin has been criticised with near-hysteria over things such as its recent public meetings. Yet these meetings are, like public protests, a central aspect of a mature vibrant democracy, and all parties hold them.

Is this part of a strategy to deflect from the underpinning change desired in the election? Is it in order to legitimise Fine Gael returning to power, in coalition with Fianna Fáil, despite the clear demand in the election for a dramatic shift in direction to prioritise societal issues and a change in Government?

The claim that 75% of the electorate didn’t vote for Sinn Féin is true. But only a minority, 42%, voted for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. The Exit polls showed that a majority wanted major change with 48% seeking a change of government, 31% saying the “country needs a radical change in direction”, while just 21% happy for the current government to continue.

A status quo government, following the same policies and values, is unlikely to represent the extent and type of change demanded. If they cannot include the main parties who represented major change, then it would seem that another election is required.

Dr Rory Hearne is Lecturer in Social Policy, Maynooth University, Author of ‘Housing Shock: The Irish Housing Crisis & How to solve it’ and an Independent candidate for Seanad NUI.

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