13 February 2020 No Comments by The Northern Standard

Somewhere in the aftermath of a General Election, someone always says it, either with the weary voice of the defeated or with the nightingale thrill that fills the throat of the victorious: “The people have spoken.” The electorate who have significantly changed the established landscape of Irish representative politics by their casting of ballots on Saturday last to determine the composition of the 33rd Dáil have certainly had their say. But what exactly is it they are saying, and how likely is it that their wishes and aspirations for how they are governed are not effectively lost in translation in the parleying and horse-trading underway to sew a viable Government out of the patchwork quilt of TDs soon to blanket the seats of Leinster House?

The disaffection with the political mainstream that has been a strong undercurrent of the Irish social tide since the country slipped from effulgent growth into an economic abyss, an undercurrent unstilled by the selectively felt fiscal recovery over which recent Fine Gael-led administrations provided, has manifested itself in an effective breaking of the two-party system that has largely ruled the Irish political roost since the foundation of the modern State.

It is to the credit of the Irish people that they have channelled their disaffection into a considered recantation of the long accepted status quo – they have not, as has happened in other countries where a significant loss of faith in the governing establishment has taken hold among the people, rejected the democratic process for the paths of agitation, demonstration and disruptive protest. Nor have they turned for succour to the sort of populist and myopically nationalist rhetoric that has brought a new generation of “strongman” political leader to power in other parts of Europe and the world.

The Irish voters have cumulatively marked out a new path for their politics and politicians to follow, but they have not on this occasion given a clear indication of the final destination they wish that path to arrive at. As seismic as some have interpreted the General Election outcome, it is ultimately more evolutionary than revolutionary. One suspects it will take several more elections before the new preference of the people manifests in a political landscape where there are clear demarcations between the ideologies and policy positions that parties and independents choose to place before those whose electoral favour they court.

It would be extremely healthy for the Irish body politic for such demarcations to emerge. We have becoming accustomed to residing faith for our governance in one of two parties who orbit the same right-of-centre sun, clinging for differentiation to subtle differences in contemporary policy shadings and the increasingly anachronistic legacies of the historical convulsions that led to Ireland’s emergence as an independent nation. It is clearly the wish of the people that they wish a broader and bolder choice of colours in their political spectrum.

Sinn Féin, the (as yet) uncrowned kings and queens to emerge from this election, clearly offered the voter a persuasive alternative on this occasion to what they had become accustomed to receiving from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, whose Confidence and Supply marriage of convenience for the duration of the last Dáil appears to have blurred whatever differences lie between the parties into one dull shade of grey in the majority of the voters’ minds.

Smaller left-accented parties and the now customary proliferation of Independents have received sufficient favour from the electorate for them to aspire to be greater or lesser components of the new dispensation that Irish voters are in the process of creating for themselves. On the one hand, what the electorate has done in this election appears to be maddeningly indecisive or inconclusive.

On first view the dispensation of seats offers no clear or easy path to the formation of a workable Government with any aspiration towards longevity. But perhaps a situation has been created by the election outcome that will see the evolution that voters obviously want to see in Irish politics not achieved merely by the ballot box, but by the necessary creativity, compromise, conciliation and ultimately conversation that will have to take place if a functioning Government is to be put together.

The message of change delivered in this General Election is not merely an expression of the people’s wishes. It is a demand on those who offer themselves to the electorate and who have been granted their favour on this occasion to prove that they can change their ways, leave behind the adversarial approach to politics of which people have clearly grown tired and find a way of working together for the common good. This is as much a challenge to those perceived as the winners of this election as those who appear to have been chastised.

A significant number of Irish voters now believe that SF are a true party of government and that FF and FG no longer offer the sort of social and economic outlook that reflects the aspirations and outlooks of the majority. But for SF to govern, and for FF and FG to remain relevant in this shifting political landscape, all three parties will have to open themselves up to the sort of compromise and collaboration that the Irish professional political practitioner has traditionally never had much savour for.

For a Government to emerge from the outcome of this election that gives meaningful reflection to the wishes of voters, a new form of coalition has to be conceived that is far removed from the expediency of Confidence and Supply or the traditional form of coalition in which a heavyweight party lets a few flyweights into the ring in order to grasp the Lonsdale Belt of power for four or five years. So far, the moves towards an evolutionary coalition have not been encouraging.

Mary Lou McDonald’s aspirations to form a government exclusive of FF and FG, Leo Varadkar’s complacent acceptance of a stretch on the Opposition benches and Micheál Martin’s increasingly desperate attempts to extract some negotiating wriggle-room from some of his haughty campaign declarations as to who he would and wouldn’t do business with all seem to be missing the point.

Maybe the voters haven’t given anyone a clear mandate in this election because they have decided it is long past time that the pettiness of party politics was laid aside, and people of ability got together across the political divide to work for the good of the country. It is a simple enough message, but have our politicians the imagination, the humility and the courage to ensure that it is not lost in translation as the government-building talks continue?

We will see.

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