Fintan O’Toole: Six reasons to take pride in #GE16

We are not racist, stupid, greedy, lacking in moral direction, guilt ridden or chicken

The count to the 2016 election has been full of shocks, sea changes and seismic shifts in Irish politics. Here are some of the headline grabbing quotes.


Maybe we’re not so bad after all. Elections are not only about what we think of politicians, but also what we think of ourselves. Election 2016 strongly suggests that we think we’re a decent enough bunch.

Here are six things we should be quite proud of:

1 We’re not blaming Them. It is easy to miss the one really distinctive thing about current Irish politics because it’s an absence. We don’t have a hard-right party that taps into our anger by directing it at Them – Muslims, immigrants. I don’t even think there was one viable Independent candidate running on an anti-immigrant platform. Renua tried to stake out some kind of hard-right territory with its grab for Tea Party tax policies. In fairness, it failed because it was too decent to add the petrol of hatred that the hard right needs if it is to take light.

2We’re not stupid. The economic narrative we were supposed to accept was a cause-and-effect story about austerity and recovery. The troika deal, largely implemented by the Government, took €30 billion out of the economy, which we’re told led to economic growth. There is supposedly some kind of causative link between, for example, cutting allowances for carers and people with disabilities and the subsequent recovery of the economy.

It’s nonsense, of course, and the voters saw it as such. They declined to give the Government credit for favourable interest and exchange rates, the relative health of the British and US economies, quantitative easing and the precipitous fall in the price of our major import (oil) on the highly intelligent grounds that the Government doesn’t control any of those things.

3 We’re not greedy bastards. We declined to be bribed with our own money to tolerate the intolerable. Fine Gael, in particular, adopted a modified version of the Bertie Ahern playbook: stuff their mouths with gold. They offered substantial tax cuts through the abolition of the universal social charge, clearly believing voters would allow the sound of a few extra euro jingling in their pockets to drown out the clamour of the homeless, the sick, the weak and the vulnerable.

Turnout per constituency

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National turnout average is 65%

Through Enda Kenny’s vision of US- style taxation and Leo Varadkar’s definition of Fine Gael as “the low-tax party”, they presented this as a long-term principle. Irish society would be reshaped along classic conservative lines as one in which taxation is the enemy of freedom and enterprise and public services are a burden on the citizen. This was an appeal to individual greed over collective well-being.

And we didn’t buy it. Voting patterns and exit polls show most voters chose the collective decency of good public services over the allure of short-term greed. Fairness and equality matter to us.

4 We do have a moral compass. Sinn Féin’s hope of getting into government on both sides of the Border in 2016 rested on the willingness of a large part of the electorate to wipe their memories of the Troubles. Sinn Féin may have a normal social democratic party somewhere inside it, but it still desperately seeks retrospective vindication for the atrocities of the IRA.

As with Martin McGuinness’s 2011 presidential bid, the push to have Gerry Adams on the Rising reviewing stand as a senior government minister was intended to prove all the terrible stuff was justified by history. It fell flat in part because Adams is not impressive outside his warm bath of adulation, and partly because too many voters have memories that haven’t gone away, you know.

5 We’re not guilty. Since 2008, there has been a religious drama playing on a loop: the Irish sinned (“we all partied”), were punished (the flagellation and fasting of austerity), and have earned redemption (by being obedient and humble). This morality play is of some importance internationally: it is the nearest thing to a success story in the whole sorry tale of the European crash.

It has some validity. Irish voters were complicit in the corruption and madness of the Celtic Tiger. But it’s also grotesquely simplistic – and, anyway, religious dramas aren’t a good basis for social and economic policy. We’ve had enough of it. We’re interested not in how bad we’ve been but in how we might be collectively better.

6 We don’t scare easily. Project Fear – stick with us or hop in the handcart to hell – was risible. So we laughed at it.

It’s often said that the people get the government they deserve. Sometimes the reply is that, in fact, it is governments that get the people they deserve. In other words, they mould the electorate into being the kind of people they want.

The powers that be – Irish governments, the European and international institutions – have wanted an Irish people that are passive, guilty and fearful. What they’ve got are a people recovering their sense of collective decency,their healthy democratic scepticism, and their backbone. Let’s keep that recovery going.

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