Election 2016 so far: Self-interest or something better?
Too many unanswered questions
What planet are they on? An alien looking at and listening to our political leaders during the election campaign so far would surely conclude that it’s not Earth. It is some other world, where climate change does not pose an existential threat, where the economic and social consequences of growing inequality are not important, where there is no refugee crisis and where the European Union is not in deep trouble.
The major political parties seem to be convinced that voters have no interest in large questions and that citizens’ overwhelming concern is with getting some money back from cuts to the universal social charge, property taxes or water charges.
It is a bleak and narrow-minded view of what Irish citizenship amounts to 100 years after an Irish republic was declared as being fit to take its place among the nations of the earth.
The co-incidence of a general election with the centenary of the Easter Rising presented our political system with a challenge and an opportunity. It was invited to rise to the occasion by engaging citizens in a genuine conversation about the meaning of a 21st century Irish republic.
This conversation need not be abstract or full of high-sounding rhetoric. The questions it should be addressing are both urgent and concrete and they matter enormously to all our lives.
How do we create a genuine republican democracy, with accountability at its heart?
How are we to repair the damage to health, education and justice systems from years of austerity and poor governance?
How is Irish society to move steadily towards greater economic equality?
What price should we be willing to pay (in agricultural output, for example) to honour our commitments on climate change?
How do we reverse the shocking increase in child poverty that threatens to blight the prospects of a large part of the next generation?
How is the European Union, which has been so central to the development of Irish society over the last five decades, to be rescued from stagnation?
What role should Ireland play in meeting the immense challenge of the refugee crisis, and what does that mean for our society?
Voters willing to comb through all the documents produced by political parties may find some attempts to address some of these questions. The overall tone of the campaign, however, suggests that these concerns are marginal to the main event, which is good old-fashioned auction politics. It’s an auction at which very many citizens are at best unenthusiastic bidders.
It may be that some voters don’t wish to be bothered with anything more complex than the possibility of a few euro more in their pockets. But the general air of frustration suggests that many voters are actually hungering for a much deeper engagement than the campaign has offered.
They want to be addressed, not as narrowly self-interested individuals, but as intelligent people who care about the future of Ireland and about its place in a troubled, rapidly changing world.
It is not too late. Politicians of all parties have almost two weeks left – weeks in which the public is all ears. They’ve made their narrow appeal to self-interest. Let them now appeal to the desire of most citizens to be part of a good society and a better world.