Stephen Collins: Coming year will test traditional party politics

Instead of saying the system is broken, politicians need to show it’s working

Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin. Despite the stresses and strains of party politics, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have managed to stick with their agreed confidence and supply arrangement. Photograph: Maxpix

Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin. Despite the stresses and strains of party politics, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have managed to stick with their agreed confidence and supply arrangement. Photograph: Maxpix

 

While the prophets of doom are having a field day at the start of this year, there is every reason to hope that the democratic values which have brought an unprecedented level of peace and prosperity to Ireland and the rest of the Western world will be strong enough to survive the challenges of the year ahead.

Brexit and Donald Trump have raised deeply uncomfortable questions about the future of Western liberal democracy, but the countries that compose the European Union have been given fair warning of the dangers ahead.

Comparisons with the 1930s have become commonplace, but Vladimir Putin is not Joseph Stalin, and the populist demagogues that have come to the fore in most European countries are a far cry from Hitler.

The task facing the political mainstream in Ireland and other EU countries is to convince the public that the current system, with all its flaws, is far better than the chaos and confusion being promoted by those who want to bring it down.

The big failure of Western governments has been their growing inability to connect with the wider public and to communicate the nature of the choices and trade-offs that are an essential part of democracy.

Take the situation in Ireland as an example. According to the most up to date United Nations Human Development Index, Ireland is ranked joint sixth in the world, alongside Germany, as the best place to live.

We are behind Norway, which comes in first place, but are ahead of the United States, the UK, Canada and France.

The UN index does not just measure income per head, but a range of quality-of-life concerns like health, education, personal security, women’s rights and the choices available in society.

Serious credit

Given that we have so recently come through a dreadful financial and economic crisis, the fact we are so highly placed is an extraordinary achievement for which our main political parties and our public service deserve serious credit.

Yet the constant barrage of negativity that dominates the airwaves day in day out conveys the impression that we live in a dysfunctional society wracked by division and inequality.

Of course there needs to be honest and open debate about all the problems that face our society, but the absence of context and lack of proportion in much of the discussion obscures the real choices that face policy-makers.

One of the clichés in the current discussion is the claim that there is a ruling elite which is out of touch with ordinary people.

Whatever can be said about Irish politicians, the notion that they are out of touch with the concerns of voters simply does not stand up. To hold their seats in our multi-party system of proportional representation, TDs have to keep in touch with their constituents in a way that is almost unheard of elsewhere.

Far from being out of touch, the problem is that so many TDs place the concerns of their constituents well ahead of any concept of the national interest, as the latest controversy over pylons demonstrates only too well.

The real problem is how the government of the day can communicate what it is doing and why to voters in the midst of the noise and misinformation thrown up by political controversy and particularly by social media.

Mainstream politicians need to be far more assertive in pointing out the reality of Ireland’s current position and the real threat to our relative prosperity and fundamental values posed by hard-left populists who dominate so much of the political debate.

Scoring points

All of the political parties are so intent on scoring points against each other that they fuel the notion that the system itself is broken beyond repair, and that the only solution is to sweep it all away.

Focus group research conducted for The Irish Times by Ipsos MRBI before last February’s election showed an alarming level of ignorance about the main issues that featured in the subsequent campaign, and a corresponding hostility to all the mainstream parties.

The prevailing view among those who took part was that Independent politicians of all and any stripe were morally superior and more genuinely interested in the welfare of ordinary people than party politicians, who were only in politics for themselves.

This is the same mood that swayed a majority of voters in the Brexit referendum into voting to leave the EU, and helped sweep Trump to power in the US.

It seemed as if a similar upheaval was on the cards here when the election last February produced an unprecedented stalemate. However, the fact that the two main parties agreed a formula to allow a government to be put in place showed that the system had a surprising level of resilience and flexibility.

Despite the stresses and strains of party politics, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have managed to stick with their agreed confidence and supply arrangement. How that fares over the coming 18 months will determine whether enough voters can be persuaded that traditional party politics can be made to work in the interests of the common good.

At a wider EU level a much greater effort has to be made to communicate with citizens across the Union about what the institutions are doing if people are to be persuaded to stick with a project that has delivered so much for the continent.

The elections this year in France, the Netherlands and Germany will determine whether the EU has a future, but the signs are that moderation and decency has every chance of triumphing over extremism and hate.

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