Rise of the Others

In last weekend’s elections, Independents, small alliances and anti-austerity groups were the big winners, polling more than 40 per cent in some areas. Was it a midterm protest vote or is the political party over?

Sat, May 31, 2014, 01:00

Protesters lined up at a European election ballot box, one roaring into it through a megaphone, another raising a fist, a third waving a placard with a single word on it: “Unhappy!”

Patrick Chappatte’s cartoon in the International New York Times could have been set in any EU country. But like unhappy families, each of the 28 members is unhappy in its own way. So what kind of unhappy are we?

Near the Castlebar count centre this week, where an EU sceptic, Luke “Ming” Flanagan, had just topped the poll in the European elections by a country mile, we meet Jim, a good-humoured taxi driver. He gave his number one to Ming.

Why Ming ?

“Ah, Ming’d talk to you. He speaks his mind.”

But what can he do for you?

“Did you look down the town? This is Enda Kenny’s town, and he hasn’t brought a pound of butter to it . . . Nobody listens to us.”

But what can Ming do about that?

“I don’t know,” Jim says with a long sigh. “I suppose it was a protest vote.”

But why Ming in particular?

A pause, then an explosive laugh. “It’ll be funny to see him carried out on a stretcher when he gets a box from a big German fella.”

A man might be forgiven such muddled, anarchic thoughts when he has recently left his eldest son at Castlebar railway station, bound for Australia, “24,000 miles away”. When we speak again, a couple of days later, Jim is on his way to a removal; a friend of his emigrant son has taken his own life. “I’m looking now at young lads around the town carrying bags of drink with them,” he says. “What is there here for them?”

This week Enda Kenny told EU leaders that Irish families were worn out. There was the startling spectacle of both Mark Carney of the Bank of England and Christine Lagarde of the International Monetary Fund declaring that capitalism is eating itself, devouring the social capital essential for its survival and fuelling inequality.

Even Larry Summers, the US economist who was treasury secretary under Bill Clinton and, later, Barack Obama’s first director of the National Economic Council, observed that “capitalism is posting growth, but it is not feeding through to the people”.

Meanwhile, Germany “remains unconvinced” about the need to compensate Ireland for its support of the banking system, “especially since the Government managed to leave the EU/IMF bailout last December without a financial safety net”, said an Irish Times report.

How does all this sound to grieving, angry parents like Jim? Or to the new class known as the “precariat”, the insecure, disconnected young who feel robbed of the better future they expected? Or the 51,000 people who rallied to the few tattered posters and principled anti-debt message of Diarmuid O’Flynn (“Ballyhea Says No”)? Or the 120,000 people who gave their first preferences to Ming Flanagan and his belief that the EU has gone too far?

Last Monday, as the Labour Party was being eviscerated in counts across the country, its defeated candidate in Midlands North West, Senator Lorraine Higgins, told this writer without a hint of irony that she had enjoyed the campaign immensely and had sensed no palpable anger. Emotional intelligence seemed in short supply.

If people remained eerily polite on the doorsteps, it was because their anger encompassed far more than medical cards or water charges. The quiet rage of people being taken for mugs was in the ether, encapsulated in an Irish Times election-day headline about David Drumm’s wife demanding her “own money” as Anglo Irish Bank imploded.

Political humility

Meanwhile, other politicians plotted their own quiet route.

Weeks ago, standing on Grafton Street in a flowery dress, the soft-spoken, damp-haired Independent candidate Nessa Childers recalled something her distinguished father used to say: “Humility is the first but not the only trait of a politician.”

Perhaps her repeated party-hopping had equipped her to engage with this new raging, anti-party era. For those who needed to be coached, it wasn’t as simple as it looked: you had to come across as fiery, fearless, controlled and knowledgeable while being humble, anguished, eternally listening and down with the people (whatever your salary or expenses regime).

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