Are we going forward?

Seán Ó Deoráin analyses the current political landscape in the wake of the general election

COMMENTAnd so, the dust settles on another Irish general election. Or has it? The results of February’s poll means that the Irish electorate could be facing into a prolonged period of political uncertainty. Gone are the days when the “internal troika” of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour could command at least three quarters of the popular vote. Indeed, the two Civil War parties had less than half of the first preferences between them.

The outgoing coalition parties put forward a simple electoral pitch: “Keep the Recovery Going.” They pointed to Portugal and Greece, warning voters about the risks of instability if Fianna Fáil or Sinn Féin were entrusted with too many votes. The electorate was having none of it. The combined loss of vote share for the outgoing Government almost equalled the loss of Fianna Fáil in 2011. The obvious conclusion is that the majority of the people are not feeling any “recovery.” Yet do we actually see a more radical trend emerging?

Much of the left’s political focus in the last 18 months has centred on the Right2Water campaign, set up to defend the State’s water supply from privatisation, and even more preferably, to abolish both Irish Water and water charges. Several demonstrations have seen averages of 80,000 to 100,000 people line the streets of the capital.

Right2Change, an electoral front which developed from this movement, set down core policy principles to which around a fifth of all election candidates subscribed. The usual bickering ensued however. Allegations of sectarianism are thought to have let Joan Burton regain her seat in Dublin West, for instance.

Political landscape

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael command roughly the same number of seats between them as they did after the former’s meltdown in 2011. Considering that a large number of the Independents elected had right-wing platforms of various hues, it is clear that outside of urban areas, the electorate remains overwhelmingly conservative in orientation. Worth mentioning is the popularity of the newly-formed Social Democrats, at university level in particular, with a recent poll conducted for a Trinity newspaper showing that it was the second-most popular party on campus.

Labour’s demise does little to justify some of its progressive social measures over its terms, including legislation on gender recognition, abortion, and, most notably, marriage equality. Unfortunately for them, this did not tally with their abysmal record on defending the working-class voters, the voters that swept them into power in 2011. The proliferation of unpaid internship schemes and a growing “precariat” among young workers contrasted poorly with the party’s historical claim to defend workers’ rights. The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) issued a clear demand in its election manifesto, calling for an end to such exploitative schemes as JobBridge, not to mention its latest incarnation, JobPath.

Despite the conservatism which continues among large swathes of the electorate, the rejection of Fine Gael and Labour’s seemingly unworkable USC abolition measure, coupled with increased investment in public services, as well as Renua’s proposed flat tax rate, did little to woo voters. Fianna Fáil distanced themselves from these approaches, talking up public services in a way that brought Bertie and McCreevy to mind. It would appear that the right’s message was confused, unpopular, and unworkable, and a “social democratic” message was favoured by most parties.

Young voters

The youth vote does not seem to have had much of an impact in the general election, confirming fears that last year’s marriage referendum was a high point for youth participation. Parties like Sinn Féin, boasting large levels of support in this age bracket, performed poorer than expected, not to mention a sustained effort by Independent Newspapers to discredit the party.

In terms of youth issues, repealing the Eighth Amendment was certainly a featured issue during the campaign, with most parties outside of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael giving explicit commitments. The USI manifesto was clear on Repeal of the 8th, as well as proposing widening access to cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormalities as a basic minimum. However despite its prominence in the pre-election debate, it seems equally as unlikely that the public will be given a choice on the 8th amendment during this government.

Key topics like mental health did not feature in the election debate, despite the worrying trends in this area among third-level students. On the wider question of sexual health, the exorbitant costs of emergency contraceptives as well as the discretion which pharmacists may invoke when prescribing it was raised.

Higher Education under threat

As regards the future of third-level education, one of the more interesting proposals was to create more apprenticeship opportunities, hopefully paid, akin to what exists in Germany. This was proposed by Sinn Féin, Labour and the Soc Dems. Claims around third-level fee reductions abounded, but the worrying prospect of a loans system is still on the cards, and the “university autonomy” proposed by several parties is a closet move towards the Anglo-American model.

There are other challenges facing those who wish to see third-level education accessible to all. Only the Social Democrats made explicit reference to opposing TTIP in its manifesto, an agreement currently being negotiated by the EU and the US, which could lead to the privatisation of the education sector. Under TTIP, corporations could sue governments, who tried to keep universities in public hands, through the use of secret courts.

Student unions should take note as this will become a bigger issue over the next few years. The key question of the socialised banking debt, an issue that will affect our generation in the form of higher taxes, was also hidden away from the headlines. Over €8 billion is currently paid out of exchequer funds on debt interest alone, and under new EU “debt break” rules, this will not ease up any time soon.

What lies ahead for the Dáil

The lack of any commanding majority in the Dáil also means that, in contrast to the 31st Dáil, we are likely to see a greater role played by opposition parties in scrutinising legislation, and less of the guillotining that the coalition effected for five years, rendering the role of parliament moot. This will give substantial leverage to interest groups who can influence the agenda of the day.

Student unions should be, now, more than ever, looking to expose this opportunity by building consensus with progressive groups on issues such as housing. The USI’s demands for a housing strategy, the temporary use of NAMA properties for accommodation and its instatement as a legal player in the setting of rent controls are objectives which must be pursued unequivocally during the next Dáil.

All parties and independents will knuckle down over the coming weeks to work out some sort of government formation. In all likelihood, we will be heading back to the polls in the near future, barring a grand coalition between the Civil War parties. Although this is unpalatable for Fianna Fáil’s leadership in particular, the high transfer rate between the parties in the election suggests their voters see it otherwise.

It is likely that we will not have a Taoiseach during the 1916 Commemorations. How ironic. The prospect of a stable administration taking office in the near future seems about as likely as Enda Kenny letting Gerry Adams line out with the guard of honour on Easter Monday.