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Opinion There has been a shift in Ireland’s political climate... but why now?

Given the fact that we have been living through turbulent political times for the past six years, why are such profound shifts in political consciousness happening now?

THERE HAS BEEN a shift in Ireland’s political climate in recent months. While it was brought to the surface by the water charges, there is a sense of a deeper, structural dissatisfaction among diverse groups of people. The amount of protests, and newly-formed action-groups, coupled with the flood of commentaries attempting to understand and shape the narrative reveals the seriousness of the shift. Something has changed in Ireland’s political consciousness.

Given the fact that we have been living through turbulent political times for the past six years, why now?

It is happening now because it has taken the last four years for it to become fully apparent that our mainstream historically-dominant political parties, Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fail, no longer (if they ever did) offer differing conceptions of the kind of society they want to create. Economically and politically, they are indistinguishable from one another. This realisation has confirmed a disconcerting truth: our traditional ways of engaging politically – voting for one of these mainstream parties – no longer seems like a viable avenue for enacting change.

Traditionally, we could direct our political outrage into support for a different party, entrusting them to respond to our criticisms. Yet, this last four years has taught us not to be so naive.

The general election of 2011

In the election of 2011 Fine Gael and Labour rode to power on a tidal wave of indignation. They self-righteously admonished Fianna Fail for their submissive attitude to the financial-bureaucratic super-structures (IMF, ECB, EU) that forced our hand in an illegitimate bailout of failed banks. They were outraged at the corruption and cronyism within Fianna Fail’s political culture. They promised a democratic revolution, political reform, and to rescue Irish sovereignty by defiantly challenging the bank bailout and Troika deal. They were going to protect the most vulnerable of society against the mistakes of a greedy, exploitative banking sector and inflated property market.

Instead, we have witnessed over the last four years a gradual dismantling of the political will granted to them during that election; they merely hi-jacked our outrage and funnelled it into a landslide victory, allowing people to feel that they were democratically taking part in determining a new future.

Their policies have been a continuation of those very same ones for which they so criticised Fianna Fail. They have overseen four consecutive regressive budgets, aimed at balancing our accounts by taking more from the most vulnerable: those they promised to protect. This is particularly shocking from Labour, whose traditional identity has disintegrated in the face of pressure from market-based financial interests.

They recoiled from the fight for fairer conditions on the bank bailout and Troika deal. So we still pay €8 billion a year on interest for a loan we should never have had to take. In fact, they have been enthusiastic in their submission to the Troika, proudly portraying us as obedient and compliant, seemingly oblivious to how angry it makes people.

They continue to encourage Nama to sell off its property portfolio to the highest bidder, often wealthy international investors. This is a major contributor to rising rents and property prices in Dublin, which, coupled with our lack of rent control is in part responsible for the current housing crisis.

The move away from mainstream politics

Add to this the recent flurry of political ineptitude, corruption, and cronyism – IMMA, Rehab, Garda Whistleblowers, Irish Water – and the current political turbulence becomes not only understandable, but inevitable.

This move away from mainstream politics is not unique to Ireland. Across Europe, the UK and the USA there has been a shift in how people are choosing to express themselves politically. The rise of far right parties in France, Greece, the UK and elsewhere, is evidence of how people are searching for new ways to make political change.

Why? Why did Fine Gael and Labour retreat from the platform on which they came to power? It doesn’t seem like it was particularly in their interests: they are both struggling in the polls.

One answer is that policy-making is not really up to them anymore. The dynamics of power in national affairs has tilted away from governments and states, towards international organisations that are even bigger, wealthier and more influential. In Ireland this is the case in an explicit sense: economic policy is determined by not the Irish government but the Troika, whose mandate is to ensure the health of the European financial system, and to make Ireland a safe place for investment. If this also makes it a nice place to live and flourish as a human being, that’s good; if it doesn’t, that’s OK too.

Tax rates are set, in part, in order to attract large multi-national organisations in the form of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). This means that people have to contribute more, or else the likes of Google, Apple, Facebook, pharmaceutical companies, and some banks might leave. These pressures combined often outweigh the need to spend on social goods and utilities.

Political middle-men with an unenviable task

And so, we get politicians who are no longer visionaries or leaders with ideas of what kind of society they want to create. We get political middle-men, middle-managers, carrying out the dictates of these unaccountable, unelected structures. They get the unenviable task of trying to make these decisions palatable to their citizens. Low corporate tax rates, high personal tax rates; paying back bondholders whose risky investments failed, re-possessing the homes of individuals whose risky investments failed, no caps on salaries and bonuses for corporate CEOs, support of programmes, like JobBridge, that encourage free-labour for the (mostly) young.

We are in uncharted territory: people are searching for a viable way to participate democratically that avoids the traditional party-political machines. Sinn Fein offer an alternative vision for society, but, it seems, are still too entrenched in controversies of their own to give their full focus to economic and social issues. We have an encouraging group of independents – Stephen Donnelly, Paul Murphy, Ruth Coppinger, Finian McGrath, Clare Daly, Ming Flanagan – who are capable of at least articulating an alternative vision for what should be prioritised in society.

This is what we need more than anything: to create new political spaces where alternatives can be imagined. The let-down of the current government has forced us to try to do this, and that is a good thing. No longer can we satisfy our democratic obligations by choosing between the big three. This means the future is uncertain, and we already seeing the politics of fear being implemented: stick with us or who knows what crazy ideas you might get. This is a cynical effort from those who have little positive to offer. Whether change comes at the next election or not, the more ways we have for people to engage in political discourse, the better off we will be.

Robert Grant has a PhD in Philosophy from Trinity College Dublin, where he is currently a tutor in Logic and the History of Philosophy. He blogs at robert-grant.squarespace.

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