Jim Carroll

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Elections 2014: apathy, alienation, anger and austerity

The opinion polls seem to suggest that the die for Friday’s winners and losers has been cast, but do we actually know what we’re voting for?

Mon, May 19, 2014, 10:34


The finishing line for the local, European and brace of byelection campaigns is in sight. This time next week, the results will be in and the analysis based on actual results as opposed to opinion polls will be in full swing. The people will have spoken and the translation of said remarks (and spin) will be dominating media outlets. It will be like the Eurovision, right down to the backing singers and dancers surounding the winners and some of the losers.

It has been a strangely underwhelming and uncompelling campaign all round. There may be hundreds of candidates competing up and down the country for various seats – all of them staring at you from a nearby poll or hoping to feature on this Tumblr site – but it’s a stream of alliteration which comes to mind to sum up matters: apathy, alienation, anger and austerity. Even those who find plenty of eating and drinking in Irish election campaigns don’t appear to have the same appetite for the game as was the case three or five years ago.

The standard set-pieces on TV and radio don’t help in any way, shape or form. We’ve grown tired and weary of watching men and women shouting at each other and talking across each other late at night. This has always been the way of the walk when it comes to political coverage in Ireland, but there’s just a strong sense of “enough already” to the whole charade this time around. When you have Vincent Browne overseeing a debate where the host is the one who comes across as the sane and balanced party, you know things are at a sorry pass. The shouting, sneering and snarking is just plain tiresome because we’ve seen and heard and tweeted it all before. There may be different characters in the various roles – Eamonn Coughlan, for example, deserves a gong for his efforts – but it’s the same script.

Then, there’s the fact that it’s hard to actually get a coherent sense from anyone about policies. Sure, they’re all standing to be elected, but the mess of posters and campaign slogans all blur into incoherent, bland, broad headline claims. It seems to be simply a case of voting for non-government candidates to give the coalition parties a kicking. Election campaigns of this ilk don’t do nuance.

Many of the would-be elected representatives also don’t seem to have grasped that they’re actually standing for election to a chamber which is not the Dail. Some of the claims on election leaflets and posters about what the candidate will do once elected are quite jawdropping in their naivity about the potential power of office. It’s clear that the person on the poster doesn’t have a breeze about what they’re on about, but they’re also banking on the fact that the voters also don’t really know the extent of what local and European politicians can do either. It’s the blind voting for the blind.

For example, do you really think a new MEP arriving in the European parliament is going to be able to turn off water charges as if it was a tap? Imagine a newly elected Irish MEP, making his or her maiden speech in that vast parliament, trying to sell that one to his or her fellow MEPs whose constituents already pay similar charges. The pixie heads strike again. The European parliament will, to quote Harry McGee, “absorb the MEPs as a glass of water does a homeopathic remedy”. They might get a 30 second clip on the news once a year but that’s it. No-one knows what happens in Europe bar the fact that it used to be Good for Ireland when we had the hand out and now, it’s simply Bad for Irelnd.

The main reason for the lack of interest around these elections seems to be that the die for Friday was cast a long time out. Simply put, the people who will bother to go to the polls on Friday appear set to give one of the government parties a bit of a kicking and let the other one down a bit easier. If the opinion polls are any guide, the Labour party will not have a great day on Friday. They’ve been over-run on their left flank and have had the centre taken over by other parties and independents of every stripe. There may even be voters who went with Labour in ’09 and ’11 who will return to Fianna Fail in ’14. It’s that kind of election. As the junior partners in coalitions past have found out, it’s always the smaller party who gets it in the neck when the voters get to have their say in the next election.

Labour may be pointing up their achievements in office – though few will applaud 60,000 Dublin bike rides when there are property tax bills to pay and water charges coming down the pipe – but that’s not going to save their skins. There has to be a reaction for that anger which is at boiling point after a couple of years of austerity measures, many of which had been put in train by the previous Leinster House incumbents, and Labour are the faces on those punchbags.

Their comrades in cabinet are having an easier ride. Perhaps Fine Gael voters are more realistic about what had to be done to right the ship after 14 years of careless government or perhaps they have sold it better, but there doesn’t appear to be as much of a reckoning in the making for the party. They’ll lose a few county councils and maybe lose a MEP or two, but there won’t be anyone calling for Enda Kenny’s head (well, bar the usual in-party suspects). The whole Alan Shatter soap opera doesn’t appear to have had as much of an effect on the party’s fortunes as you’d imagine at this juncture. These elections are referendums on economic policies and austerity and FG voters seem happy enough to throw things in with their lot again.

After a couple of false dawns, this would appear to be the election campaign when Sinn Fein can truly break out the tricoloured bunting and have a good old sing-song. Given the fact that they’re the only party in the race who’ve seen their leader have his collar felt over a 40 year old murder inquiry, something like this would be an apt anthem to accompany every single win around the country. Gerry Adams’ sojourn in Antrim police station has not appeared to have put the brakes on the party’s momentum, unless people are fibbing to the opinion pollsters at their front doors. Those who would regard Adams’ arrest as a problem were never going to vote SF anyway.

What is clear is how they’ve become the catch-all party that Fianna Fail once were. The latter party have not gone away – something which will come as a surprise to anyone who wrote their obituary three years ago – but they can only look on as Sinn Fein hoover up support left, right and centre as FF once did. There is still a legacy overhang from the party’s past for many, but voters under 30 don’t have that problem and SF are attracting young, articulate, presentable, electable candidates for them to vote for. There’s still far too much of an unquestionable allegiance to the past to make SF truly a party of the future – that will only come with a change of leadership and direction – but it’s clear that the revisionism is on track.

It’s interesting to look at the various pieces outling the best and worst possible outcomes for Fianna Fail. Surely the fact that the party is still in business after 2011′s outcome is the best possible outcome? The fact that they can get newbies to stand under their banner should be reason enough for cheer at FF HQ. The party who were dead and buried three years ago, a party who’ve spent the bulk of this Dail term without a rep in the capital, are still in business. There may be anecodatal evidence of a lingering anti-FF backlash but they’ll still get votes, still get local candidates elected, still be in with a shout of a few European seats. The machine may need to be oiled and upgraded and it may still be prone to banana skins (see Mary Hanafin in Blackrock, Brian Cowen on the canvas in Offaly and anyone from the past reminding voters with decent memories of what happened during 14 years of FF rule), but the machine still exists.

This, though, will be the elections where the independents (or genuine independents, to quote the posters all over west Wicklow for one public rep) and smaller parties may well let rip. Between the Socialist Party, Anti Austerity Alliance, People Before Profit and Direct Democracy, there’s a plethora of paries in the space to soak up a lot of the protest votes which aren’t going to SF. Some of these parties and candidates will do very well and some, well, some will be reminded that they’re far from electable. Not everyone can be a Ming Flanagan and be in with a shout of a European seat to go with their Dail seat.

Flanagan’s potential success in that huge, sprawling Midlands-North-West constituency is down to a number of reasons, including profile and what we’ll call for now the Davy Fitz factor, when a person becomes a larger-than-life, almost cartoon-like character with widespread appeal. There’s lots of support out there for him cocking a snook at The Man in his jumper, regardless of what he stands for aside from cocking a snook at The Man in his jumper. Has, for instance, anyone actually tapped Flanagan’s policies and plans on Europe beyond the fact that it’s bad? Isn’t this why we’re supposed to voting for? Or is it the fact that he appears to be anti-everything The Man is for good enough for many? When we head into the election stations countrywide on Friday to make our mark on those ballot papers, will we be voting on what we know or what we think we know?