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'We can't ignore the very real possibility of the emergence of a new disruptive politics'

Irish politics remains volatile with the potential for alternative political parties emerging, writes Rory Hearne.

Rory Hearne Post-doctoral researcher

TEN YEARS AFTER the devastating economic crash, harsh austerity cuts to services and welfare, mass youth emigration, and one of the largest protest movements in modern Irish history – the anti-austerity water protests –it appears that the political ‘centre’ of Irish politics has weathered the protest storm.

Recent opinion polls show the centre-right parties of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil gaining in support while the main opposition ‘left’ party, Sinn Féin, has not increased significantly, independents have fallen back and other smaller parties such as the Social Democrats and PBP/AAA remain stagnant.

Be cautious about drawing conclusions

However, I would argue that we should be cautious about drawing conclusions from the results of these polls. There are other factors which suggest that this is a fragile recovery of the so-called ‘centre’ (Fine Gael’s policies are actually more neoliberal/economically right-wing than centre).

Irish politics remains volatile, with the potential for alternative political parties and governments a real possibility in the coming years and decades.

Firstly, there are economic factors. In the coming election the nature of the economic ‘recovery’ will come under greater scrutiny and many issues which are currently not achieving much media attention will come under focus.

The ‘recovery’

This occurred in the last election – when the government lost its support on its campaign of ‘keeping the recovery going.’ Many voters were not feeling the ‘recovery’ and while unemployment has fallen dramatically, the reality is that many people who are in employment are still really struggling, with Social Justice Ireland showing that over 100,000 workers are in poverty.

Furthermore, there is no sign of government policies addressing the housing crisis any time soon, and so issues such as the lack of affordable housing, mortgage arrears, the lack of rent control and tenants security, and homelessness are going to be to the fore in the election.

20% of households are now in the private rental sector and these are a major potential voter block that could further disrupt the established political voting patterns. Add to this the health crisis, lack of affordable childcare, and other issues such as poor disability and mental health services, along with rising generational income and wealth inequality with those at the top gaining substantially more.

These ‘unequal’ sides to the recovery have the potential to dampen Fine Gael support.

High level of distrust

Secondly, there remains a high level of distrust amongst Irish people of government and political parties. A November 2017 Eurobarometer poll showed that more Irish people distrust than trust the government. 50% do not trust it, while 45% trust it. Similarly, just 43% of Irish people said they trust the Dáil.

Irish people remain much less trusting of their parliament than some of their European counterparts. For example, 73% of Swedes, 67% of Dutch people and 64% of Danes trust their parliaments. But when it comes to political parties, 73% per cent said they distrusted them and only a fifth of Irish people trust them.

This disconnect with politics and government was evident in the 2016 election when voter turnout was just 65%, meaning that twice as many voters did not vote as voted for the party of government.

And this disconnect is most visible along social class and generational lines. The January MRBI Irish Times opinion poll, when broken down by age group, shows that among 25-34 year olds, Sinn Féin is the second largest party with 26%, while Fianna Fáil had just 17% support. Fine Gael had 53% support from the highest social class (AB) while Sinn Féin had the highest party support from the DE social class at 32%, with Fine Gael at just 24%.

Not immune to global changes

Ireland is not, despite what many argue, immune to the changes in politics taking place globally such as the rise of right wing extremism or new parties and politics of the left like as Corbyn or Sanders.

Rising inequality and citizen disconnect from political parties combined with social media has resulted in voters being much more critical of traditional parties and open to new politics.

While mainstream commentators spend their time discussing whether Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil will lead the next government, they ignore the very real possibility of the emergence of a new disruptive politics that could harness on-going public disquiet and challenge these traditional parties.

Issue of division

Factors impeding the growth of the centre-left parties in Ireland include the on-going issue of division amongst the multiplicity of parties and their inability to sufficiently mobilise the disenchanted households, particularly young people and working class areas, to vote.

The Right2Change movement made an attempt in the last election to try get the left parties to co-ordinate together and increase voter registration in disadvantaged areas. A re-invigoration of this approach is required for the next election if the left is to avoid further marginalisation.

One large party of the centre-left (or a new alliance with a much closer working of the existing parties) that is committed to challenging Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil (rather than going into coalition with them) could offer a real alternative choice of government to voters and thus increase wider societal support for such an alternative.

The Labour Party in the UK under Corbyn shows how one large left party can mobilise a new generation into politics. The centre (right) in Ireland is not as solid as it appears. Things are not going to stand still in Irish politics and significant change remains likely in the coming years.

Dr Rory Hearne is a post-doctoral researcher in the Maynooth University Social Sciences  Institute working on social investment, human rights and housing. He is author of Public Private Partnerships in Ireland  (Manchester UP, 2011) & co-author of Cherishing All Equally (TASC, 2016). He is also active in housing and social justice campaigns.

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About the author:

Rory Hearne  / Post-doctoral researcher

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