A significant minority of voters now feel politically homeless
Many Irish voters are socially conservative, but are not particularly right-wing economically. Where is the party that represents them?
‘For decades, people have been warning about the democratic deficit at the heart of the EU.’ Above, counting European election votes at the RDS Count Centre in 2009. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
After all that has happened in the past week alone, how many Irish people will vote in the European elections for the person they consider will be best able to carry out the role of a MEP? How many will cast their vote at all?
Some will vote to punish the Government. Some will go even further and vote for someone as a gesture of contempt for the whole process. Some, of course, will still vote for reasons of loyalty to a particular party, or for a local candidate, no matter what he or she stands for.
At least these people will go out to vote. The turnout across Europe is expected to be lower than ever.
Green Party candidate Eamon Ryan has highlighted the danger that the next European Parliament “could end up deeply divided between mainstream parties who stick to the status quo and new political groups whose only aim is to tear things apart”. He is right, of course, as across Europe, voters are turning to parties that range from quite toxic brands of nationalism to far left parties.
Some, such as the Finns Party (formerly True Finns) do not fit neatly into either left or right but are convinced the EU project is doomed and Finland should prepare for it. France has both the Front National with Marine Le Pen and the much smaller Front de Gauche. The UK has UKIP, which looks like a party of angelic choristers compared with Greece’s Golden Dawn.
Credibility of European project
All that most of these parties have in common is a high degree of Euroscepticism. Some of them are also fearful of immigration. If, as expected, many of them succeed in the election it will have serious implications for the credibility of the European project as currently framed.
For decades, people have been warning about the democratic deficit at the heart of the European Union. If you asked most Irish people how the EU works, most would not be able to tell you. How many people know what the relationship is between the European Commission, European Council and European Parliament, or even whether the parliament can initiate legislation? (It cannot directly but it can ask the commission to submit legislative proposals.)
Add to that the fact that these are the first elections since the economic meltdown and you have a potent mix. There is huge resentment of the savage austerity measures among the more distressed countries, and huge resentment at allegedly footing the bill among the economically more successful nations.
Yet we have never needed a functioning, fair Europe more, given the problems facing us, not least climate change, an immense challenge now greeted mostly with a shrug. Even talented and patently decent politicians such as Ryan struggle to be heard on this vital issue.
It is no surprise that canvassers here report widespread disillusionment not only with the EU but also with politics in general. This highlights a serious, home- grown democratic deficit that we cannot shrug off simply because we do not have the same range of extreme, radical responses found elsewhere in Europe.
Take the spectacle of politicians defending Alan Shatter when in other countries he would have had to resign months ago. Labour defended him because he supported its legislative agenda. Enda Kenny defended him – at least until the Shatter brand became too much of a liability – because he had been loyal during an attempted leadership heave.
There is now a significant minority of voters who feel politically homeless, not just the voters who felt completely let down by Fine Gael legislating for abortion but those who despair because there seems no real alternative to crony politics.
Also, many Irish voters are socially conservative, but are not particularly right-wing economically. Where is the party that represents them?
In other countries cynicism may have fuelled the rise of extreme right wing and hard-line left-wingers. While it is laudable that has not happened in Ireland, it is not particularly healthy that we have the opposite problem. The Irish political spectrum acceptable to our commentariat is claustrophobically narrow.
For example, one politician I know has been a staunch supporter of a north inner city Dublin education initiative for children at risk and out-of-home young people. He is a vocal advocate of migrants’ rights and regularly highlights human trafficking. Yet he gets branded in some quarters as an extreme right-winger.
In most European countries the person I am speaking of, Senator Rónán Mullen, would be considered mainstream. Many people who are supporting him in the Midlands North West constituency are doing so because they believe he is honest and can ably represent an Irish electorate that feels failed by the current ruling parties.
We have a very tightly controlled and managed elite culture in which people who do not fit within narrow, so-called liberal boundaries are anathematised. The disenchantment experienced by canvassers on the doorsteps three years ago has, if anything, intensified. While no-one want to see the rise of extremist politics, a tolerance of a wider range of views could only be healthy.