You know student politics has reached new lows when the youth wings of the two largest political parties in the country base their recruitment posters on ripped-off pop culture, with equally insightful messages encoded in both. Ógra Fianna Fáil drop all pretence of having actual political positions, instead proclaiming, “Love a good party? Join Ógra” on a 22 Jump Street inspired background, including a vest saying “Sun’s out, guns out”. Either Fianna Fáil have decided to stop pretending they offer any real alternative to the governing coalition, or they are subtly hinting at a return to their physical force roots. Fine Gael are no better, with a recruitment poster that is either a work of profound self satire, or a very unfortunate combination of motifs: it has Michael Collins sitting on a House of Cards style stone chair, his bloodied hands upon two fasces, the symbol that gave fascism its name. Either the ‘Blueshirts’ have embraced their nickname and past, or they don’t look too closely at the posters they steal from. With such efforts, it’s hardly surprising that membership numbers for both main parties have been in steady decline for years.
But it’s not just membership numbers that are in decline: voter apathy has become an accepted feature of the politics of western democracies, and Ireland is no exception. If anything, the situation is much worse here, a country where elections seem to always result in more of the same, a product of a political system in which the two dominant parties are indistinguishable in all but personnel. There is a pervasive sense of meaninglessness attached to elections. I’ve always found the complaints of Young Fine Gael and Ográ Fianna Fáil that students ‘don’t care about politics’ hard to stomach when the root of cause of that apathy is the inability of either of those parties to offer any real possibility of change.
Left-right divide developing
However, recent developments might point to a political future in Ireland that some would have expected a few years ago. The recent local elections saw the long predicted electoral breakthrough of Sinn Féin, along with good results more generally for independents and anti-establishment parties, such as the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party.
This voting shift is starting to seem like a permanent political adjustment. The most recent Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll had Sinn Féin tied with Fine Gael at 24% and on this month’s two by-elections were won by anti-establishment candidates. It would be easy to dismiss these results as protest votes and anger at a failed economy. But when read against broader political trends, a different picture emerges. A former editor of this paper, Ronan Burtenshaw, has analysed the combined vote share of right wing political parties (the two large parties of F.F and F.G and micro parties) since independence, and found that together they had over 75% of the vote from 1927 to 1992, with one exception in 1948. Their combined vote has now dropped to 40%.
But it’s not just left wing journalists pointing this out. A recent piece in the Irish Independent by Dan O’Brien warned that the “decline of two Civil War parties may see us become ungovernable”. He uses the same figures as Burtenshaw, stating that the vote share of the two main parties has been in decline for three decades. He also references surveys from the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems, which show that 49% of people in Ireland express hostility to political parties in general. His conclusion is that single party government is essentially impossible now and in the future, leading to unstable coalitions like those seen in 1980s Italy.
I draw different conclusions from these figures: it’s possible that, almost one hundred years since independence, Irish politics may be starting to restructure down ideological right-left lines. Even the Irish Times poll points towards this, with Sinn Féin and Labour both seeing increased vote share, together holding 33%. One in three people in country committed to voting for one of the two mainstream left parties is a dramatic shift, and should not be underestimated, especially considering the large amount of support for other left individuals and parties. If this restructuring continues, future elections may finally offer the chance for voters to actually control what direction the country goes in, especially if the leftist dream of a Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil coalition comes to pass.
Alongside electoral gains for those that can be broadly grouped under the heading of ‘the left’, the past year has seen the emergence and strengthening of a wide variety of non-party political movements. In the past six months alone we saw huge protest marches of tens and thousands for a diverse range of progressive causes, from solidarity with Palestine, abortion rights, marriage equality, drug legalisation, to the huge anti-water charges march on Saturday that some reports said saw 50,000 to 100,000 people marching in the capital.
Being someone of a progressive mindset can often be a depressing prospect, especially in a country like Ireland. Every victory is hard won, and reversals always seem to be around the corner. But Ireland, like Greece and Spain, was laid waste to by the Great Recession, and like those countries is seeing a political awakening. We don’t yet have a dynamic and new political movement like Syriza or Podemos to exemplify the political changes that are happening, but the possibility of one emerging has never been greater.
We cannot allow this opportunity to pass us by. It has been decades since the last real opportunity for major political change in this country, and it could well be decades until the next chance unless this one is seized upon. What is needed is not just the traditional slogan of ‘unity’, but a real shared vision of the kind of Republic we want, a vision that can be bought into regardless of party affiliation or the political movement one primarily engages with – a Republic where women aren’t brutalized by the state and denied autonomy over their own bodies, where Travellers and other ethnic minorities don’t face endemic racism and profiling, where everyone has equal opportunities regardless of how much their parents earn, where the resources of the Republic are used for the entire population of the Republic, and not just to enrich the few.
This vision doesn’t need to be a policy document, just a set of principles to act as the founding document for a political alliance across party lines. This alliance doesn’t need to follow the United Left Alliance’s mistakes and collapse. Instead, it should aim to be the most popular front possible, bringing together parties and movements that want a better Ireland, and agree that coalition and cooperation with right wing parties and organizations isn’t the way to achieve it.
There is an easy starting point: every party or individual in the country that wishes to call themselves ‘left wing’, should pledge to never go into coalition with or support either of the right wing parties. That basic pledge would do more to help progressive movements in Ireland than a dozen regressive governments like the current one, and could act as a base from which to build the kind of future we all want to live in.