Political parties should stand for something
In Irish politics, pre-election promises are made to be broken
Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources Pat Rabbitte. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times
Recent opinion polls have charted a steady fall in support for the main political parties, culminating in a situation whereby one in three people do not know who they would vote for if a general election were held tomorrow.
This is in marked contrast to the settled political landscape of the past and reflects a troubling disconnect between the political establishment and an electorate traditionally characterised by a high level of party loyalty.
The fact that one-third of voters do not currently align themselves with an existing political party is significant but it is not surprising. How can voters subscribe to a party’s principles and ideals if those principles and ideals are subject to sudden and dramatic change?
It is now an inherent feature of Irish politics that pre-election promises are made to be broken. The extent of the resignation to this fact was recently epitomised by Minister Pat Rabbitte, who said of making promises that you don’t keep: “Sure, isn’t that what you do at election time?”
It was hoped that lessons had been learned from the epoch of auction politics under the previous government, when momentarily popular policies were pursued to the short-term benefit of a party but the long-term detriment of the country.
Since then, politically unpalatable decisions have been made in the national interest in spite of the likely consequences in the short-term for the parties responsible for implementing unpopular decisions.
It appeared that a new era had dawned in which principles were placed above politics, and that which was popular was resisted in preference for that which was right.
However, recent events surrounding the passage of the Government’s Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill suggest that pre-election commitments continue to be considered by the parties in power to be of little import.
Regardless of your personal standpoint on the broad spectrum of public opinion concerning that particular legislation, it is incontestable that Fine Gael’s eventual position on the issue represented a diametric departure from one of its key pre-election promises.
In doing so, the party not only damaged itself but also the perception of the political establishment. In breaking its contract with the people, it fomented mistrust and widened the chasm between the electorate and their representatives.
It is not surprising, therefore, that opinion polls suggest a growing number of people are disaffected by party politics. They no longer automatically align themselves with the policies and values of a political collective because those policies and values have been shown to be subject to momentary change.
Political parties should be more than meaningless weathervanes of public opinion. They should stand for something. But Ireland is afflicted by chameleonic politics, which sees policy positions adapted instantaneously to suit a particular political environment.
This has seen the main political parties clamour towards the centre in an orgy of consensus that has rendered political ideology extinct, and is leaving the voter bereft of legitimate choices at the ballot box.
It is incumbent on the main political parties to re-earn the trust of the electorate and bridge the gap between the people and the political establishment. They must be able to honestly set out their policies and ideals, and foster in people a belief that they will strive to stand by them.
Until then, opinion polls are likely to continue to map a decline in party loyalty and trace a disaffected exodus from the larger political collectives. The only factor sparing those parties from steeper decline is the perceived lack of a viable alternative at present; making the choice at election time which parties should govern, rather than which policies should be pursued.
Recent debate on political reform in advance of the forthcoming referendum on the Seanad has centred on the institutions of the State. All of this will be pointless, however, unless we reform the way we do politics within those institutions.