For many the February 26 General Election looms large: pundits, politicos and beleaguered canvassers alike rabidly consume their daily drip of election coverage, ranging from poorly researched fiscal plans to increasingly grandiose Alan Kelly pronouncements.
The 2016 election will be significant insofar as it may signal the end of Ireland’s vacuous civil war politics, a deadweight on Irish political discourse that has endured decades of crises without buckling under the pressure of corruption, poverty and growing inequality. Instead it fostered a sense of disconnection and hopelessness within the population, especially among the poor many whose boats failed to rise as predicted in the tide of Celtic Tiger decadence.
These are the same unfortunates who have had their fate sealed by the bank guarantee, and who have seen their standard of living fall steadily under five years of coalition governance: defaults on obscene mortgages, vanishing medical cards and cuts to basic standards of social provision. An aura of social Darwinism emerged in an economy not previously known for its equity. After years of regressive budgets, alarming rises in deprivation and significant social unrest, the centre isn’t holding the way it used to.
The narrative of the recovery is an essential element of the coalition’s electoral myth-making. It’s been bolstered by bus ads staffed by rosy-looking caters announcing the carefully crafted lie: “Let’s keep the recovery going.” Apparently the Fine Gael creative team thinks that a low-paid position in the foodservice` industry is a boon.
Fine Gael are peddling the idea that their last years of policy making were not savage cuts that contributed to the impoverishment of struggling families and an exodus of the nation’s youth, but a penance for our collective financial sins. This recovery narrative promises our emergence from this recession, shedding our taxation burden, gainfully employed, and ready to consume, leap onto the property ladder and retroactively save faltering pension funds or seemingly insurmountable debt.
Ignoring the fact many economists’ view of our economic future is decidedly grimmer, this narrative is also predicated on the abandonment of a significant section of Irish people. Hundreds of thousands of Irish people cannot rely on their health service, can’t pay rapidly increasing rents and find adequate pay and job security almost illusory. An economic recovery won’t counteract the drastic dismantling of essential services and the transfer of wealth upwards that’s occurred in the lifetime of the past two governments.
“The Recovery” isn’t just disconcerting optimism and government spin. It’s a defence of the indefensible. It’s the cheery face of government policy that punishes poverty and entrenches deprivation and precarity.
In any discussion of Irish politics, optimism is rare, and usually suspect. My entrenched lefty pessimism aside, over the lifetime of this government, multiple tropes of Irish politics were disproven. The massive turnout among non-traditional voters during the Marriage Equality referendum is illustrated by the mass registration of young people and the astonishingly high percentage of Yes votes counted in the most deprived areas of Dublin. Jobstown, the site of Joan Burton’s besiegement by activists, voted 87% Yes.
This mass entry of voters into the electoral process is politically relevant ahead of this election. It illustrates that a large section of the population, previously uninterested in dull and disheartening political affairs, will engage when presented with a tangible opportunity for progressive change.
Labour got almost 20% of the vote in 2011. Demographically speaking, it has been abandoned by all but its most affluent supporters. Sinn Fein is the most popular party among people under the age of 35. Among young people and those hit hardest by the establishment parties’ austerity policies, there is appetite for change. Sinn Fein, AAA-PBP and an assorted crew of left-wing Independents are receiving growing support from voters for whom politics-as-usual is an unacceptable result. A high turnout among disadvantaged communities and among young first time voters would be a significant challenge to the dominance of conservative politics in Ireland.
Over the lifetime of this government, communities brutalised by austerity have mobilised in a way not seen before. Mobilisations against the property and water taxes have drawn hundreds of thousands and spawned local resistance groups in most every town across Ireland. Mobilisations of this size, mirrored in miniature in many towns and cities besides Dublin, are of massive significance. These protests, combined with the local movement to resist water meter installation, represent a very tangible anti-government, anti-austerity sentiment that will fuel Sinn Fein and the left’s rise in popularity.
These protests are often derided for their naff imagery (bad water puns, strange plumbing-related costuming) but they represent a real desire for a more equal, just society. The anti-water charges movement isn’t simply people fed up of addition taxation. It is connected to the frustrations felt by ordinary people made to pay the cost of a crisis created by the wealthy. This sentiment was summed up perfectly by AAA-PBP election candidate Cllr Brid Smith when she proclaimed at a recent protest, “We need to put manners on the rich”.
The anti-water charges movement should not be dismissed as a major political motivator ahead of the election. It has been Ireland’s answer to the Occupy movement, albeit with less catch-sloganeering and even fewer attractive bohemians.
While the recently formed Social Democrats look to Northern Europe for inspiration, citing a Scandinavian system of social capitalism, the focus for the Irish left ahead of the election will be on Southern Europe and the massive gains seen by the radical anti-austerity left in Spain and Portugal.
These electoral gains follow years of fervent organising and represent not only a backlash to growing inequality, but also a deep distrust of the long-ruling political moderates. Spain’s two moderate parties received their worst ever combined result in the recent election. Ireland is on track to follow them. This doesn’t open the door for Ireland’s left government, but it will be a significant blow to the established political axis that has ruled comfortably for so long.
In fact, a vital aspect of the Ireland’s fledgling left’s contribution to the discourse has been its position as the lone challenger of EU mandated austerity directives.
Unlike the government parties’ slavish devotion to austerity and Sinn Fein’s criticisms (which are prefaced by a promise to remain within established fiscal parameters), the Irish radical left’s advocacy for debt repudiation represents our best hope of true resistance to growing inequality and deprivation.
Despite their liberal reputation, European authorities have been ruthless in their treatment of financially strapped eurozone nations. The security of irresponsible banking institutions has taken precedence over the basic welfare of millions of European workers. Neoliberalism is so ingrained in European policymaking that any resistance to these austerity directives is met with dire threats and ultimatums.
It’s fundamentally unrealistic to believe that a government can implement the sweeping changes needed to seriously challenge poverty and inequality while burdened with the massive debt of the bank guarantee. It’s a damning indictment of our skewed political discourse and the deep cynicism of the elected leaders that concern for the most disadvantaged part of the population is derided as “irresponsible”, while those who fight against savage cuts are branded “hard left.”
This recovery is a myth. Almost 140,000 people languish on the housing list while the major parties refuse to act on homelessness or tame rent-hiking landlords. According to CSO reports, 37.3% of children experience deprivation.
There are no solutions to be found in business-as-usual politics. Sadistic policies that privilege wealth and punish poverty are calculated decisions. The rise of the radical left across Europe led by students and low wage, precarious workers is a vital aspect of the challenge to neoliberal hegemony.
It’s not enough just to vote left. A society built on principles of social justice can only be achieved through struggle. Join a union, march on the streets. You’re a student, for God’s sake.
Illustration by Sarah Larragy