The people have spoken
That’s democracy. You cast your vote on a Friday and they count your vote and everyone else’s vote on a Saturday. There’s a different kind of democracy in some constituences like Wicklow and Laois-Offaly where they’re still counting your vote …
That’s democracy. You cast your vote on a Friday and they count your vote and everyone else’s vote on a Saturday. There’s a different kind of democracy in some constituences like Wicklow and Laois-Offaly where they’re still counting your vote on Monday and may well be still at it a week from now in the case of the former. I know there’s an argument for electronic voting to speed this malarkey up, but I prefer my democracy to be slow-burning with a sideplate of drama. And boy, there was some drama this weekend.
We under-estimated the national loathing for Fianna Fail. Even when the polls were indicating that they were going to get a kicking, many pundits couldn’t really see the electorate giving the party’s big beasts the finger. Sure, they’d be reduced in number, but the party’s stalwarts, the bigwig TDs who got us into this mess, would survive. But they didn’t. Saturday and Sunday were full of Portillo moments. The three Marys – Coughlan, O’Rourke and Hanafin – are gone. A visibly annoyed John O’Donoghue was sent into the wilderness by the good people of Kerry South. Martin Mansergh’s knowledge of fine Latin maxims didn’t save him from the wrath of Tipperary South. Dublin North Central, my own neck of the woods, has no more use for Sean Haughey and he leaves as meekly as he arrived. Conor Lenihan can now devote his time to something else. Barry Andrews? See-ya! As we type, the count is underway again in Wicklow and it’s likely that the Portillo moment to beat all the other Portillo moments, the elimination of Dick Roche, will get a second outing at some stage today. Only Cork, the home city of Micheal Martin, proved to be FF-friendly this time out. The People’s Republic of FF. Up the rebels, indeed.
But if there was an under-estimation of the hatred for Fianna Fail on the back of their incompetent handling of the national economy and their abject cronyism, there was also an longstanding under-estimation of Fine Gael and especially Enda Kenny, the winner of General Election 2011. Go back to 2002 and look at the state of that party who are now going to govern this land. They were a beaten docket, the hopeless also-rans after a disastrous campaign. Kenny took over a party which the electorate and pol corrs had classed as a vehicle unfit for purpose and, slowly and steadily, he rebooted, recalibrated, renewed and redrew it. He did the chicken dinners, he pressed the flesh, he cajoled Fine Gael members and supporters up and down the country. It was a dirty job and he did it.
When it came to this campaign, Kenny’s groundwork and heavy lifting, along with a national realisation that the electorate had fooled themselves in 2007 by returning a FF-led government, meant FG were ready for their close-up. The political classes may have dwelled long and hard on Kenny’s performance in debates and interviews, but the public didn’t seem to buy their concerns. There was a storm in the media teacup when he didn’t turn up for the TV3 debate, but it had absolutely no impact on the party’s standing. It was always going to be a Fine Gael and Labour get-up.
Labour did very, very well, but they should have done even better. The great re-alignment in Irish politics should have seen Labour breaking the 40 seat mark but it didn’t happen. The Labour sea-change had come too early for them. By the time the real polls came along, Labour’s fence-sitting, flip-flopping and all-round huffing sent would-be voters reaching for the independents or Sinn Fein or even FG instead. There were too many “because I’m worth it” candidates on posters instead of younger, more enthusiastic lads and lasses. The “Gilmore for Taoiseach” posters were not a great idea because that was just never going to happen. Still, though, second most popular political party in the land. High fives, large lattes and iced buns all round.
This was Sinn Fein’s breakthrough election, the campaign when all the nearly men and women of old became TDs (almost – party HQ backroom supremo and former rock’n'roll wildman Eoin O Broin is still not a TD despite moving from the SF-unfriendly Dun Laoghaire to the supposedly SF-friendly Dublin Mid-West). But leaving aside the likes of McDonald and Adams and Doherty who topped polls and got seats, it was the triumph of the party’s candidates who are not as well known on the national stage which was most telling as to the work the party has done on the ground. Sure, there was a huge element of the protest vote going their way – they would have benefited from a lot of the soft FF switchers, for instance – but it was their work on councils up and down the land which stood them in good stead this time around. There is still a SF generation gap – many over 35 years of age still see the party as SF/IRA and would be reluctant to give them a preference – but it is a gap which is in the party’s favour. They’re not going away anytime soon and their Dail performances on the opposition benches will see them gaining even more votes next time around.
It’s probably time to stop refering to everyone else as the Independents or the Others. There are many different shades of Others. There’s Joe Higgins and Clare Daly of the Socialist Party. There’s their fellow United Left Alliance deputies Seamus Healy, Richard Boyd-Barrett and Joan Collins, three tough, streetwise, battle-hardened reps. There’s the weird sight of the indies like Michael Lowry who supported the outgoing government easily getting re-elected. There’s the FF gene-pool indies like Mattie McGrath and Michael Healy-Rae who are going to be hanging around in the 31st Dail like a bad smell, but without the influence they once had. There’s the WTF? colourful indies like Mick Wallace. There are the indies who’re going to be great Dail performers like Shane Ross (the Seanad was his apprenticeship) and Luke “Ming” Flanagan (anyone who paints Flanagan as some sort of pot-smoking eccentric forgets that he’s learned his trade at a council level in Roscommon – pot-smoking eccentrics are unlikely to get nearly 9,000 votes on a whim from nearly 80 per cent of the good people of Roscommon-South Leitrim who voted last Friday). We won’t have any Green Party TDs to kick around this time, but we knew that was going to happen.
If there was drama over the last 72 hours, there will be plenty of drama to come. There will be no honeymoon period for the incoming government who may well find out when they open all the cupboards that things are way worse after 14 years of Fianna Fail mis-rule than anyone realised. They’re straight into the gig and can expect absolutely no leeway from the opposition benches. From that quarter, you’ll have Sinn Fein, Fianna Fail, the left alliance and everyone else belting away at them and probably each other too. Oireachtas Report may become a must-see TV show.
Best of all, there will be the ongoing Dynasty-like drama of what happens to Fianna Fail now. Yes, they were destroyed last Friday, but they weren’t obliterated. Yes, there are now no Fianna Fail TDs in up to 25 of the 42 constituences, but there will still be around 20 of them in the next Dail. Yes, admitting you voted for FF is a bit like admitting your liked The Darkness, but can this state of affairs last forever? Can FF rebuild? Can FF survive? Can FF ever return to their pre-2011 strengths on a national level? Or is the generation gap, the one where their core support comes from those over 65, going to finish them off? It’s a job which is made harder in the short-term because they have very few councillors. Time and time again over the weekend, TV and radio commentators drew your attention to the lack of FF councillors around the country. While people may think that FF can now do like FG did from 2002 in rebuilding the party, FG at least had a base to work with. Is Micheál Martin up to the job of doing the chicken dinners? Only time will tell.
But that’s not the only political drama which will intrigue in the coming years. I’ll be interested to see where the Green Party go from here. There is definitely a support base out there for them but they lost most of that by eagerly jumping into bed with Fianna Fail when FF fluttered their eyelids in 2007. If you lie down with dogs, you will get fleas and the Greens are flea-ridden right now. But out of office and out of the Dail, they can rebuild the party and learn from the huge mistakes they made in government. Most of all, they’ll understand why pointing to a small number of achievements is absolutely no use when you’ve made a hames of the big stuff.
The real story, though, will be on the main stage. The incoming government have a mandate from the Irish people. We, the people, have collectively spoken and we have swapped a conservative right of centre administration with some Green flashing for a conservate right-ish administration with a chunk of Left stuffing. We, the people, are not yet ready for a government starring the hard left or Sinn Fein, though it may be a different matter five years from now. We, the people, have decided by a process of elimination that we want Enda Kenny in charge because we, the people, gave Fine Gael more votes than any other party. We, the people, have got what we wanted. That’s demoracy. Let’s hope we remember that a year from now.