Chris Johns: Ireland risks populist culture war over property and pensions

Sinn Féin’s absurd promise to lower retirement age an explicit grab at a populist lever

Medical card protests in 2008. ‘It is in the narrow economic interests of older people to receive higher State pensions at as young an age as possible.’ Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Populist politicians who stoke – or seek to ignite – culture wars are everywhere. They have lots of readily available tools: the divisions that normal politics, decent politicians, seek to soften. It is trivial to assert that populists make promises they can’t keep. It is more important to observe that those promises often involve the identification of an interest group and, as well as promising the moon, paint that group’s interests in terms of conflict. The message is often subliminal and sinister: we will do something for you (the promise) at the expense of someone else. When the message is that the “other” is somehow doing you harm the resulting politics are rarely pleasant.

Modern culture wars involve many different tribes slugging it out with each other, sometimes in shifting coalition with other groups. We divide ourselves by race, religion, class, education and geography. Trump and Brexit share many characteristics: a rural versus urban divide. People with degrees were more likely to vote Remain and not for Donald Trump. And so on.

Ireland can count itself lucky that many of these tribal forces, so obvious elsewhere, are relatively muted. We've our own history that, maybe, contributes to a wariness based on acute awareness about possible consequences. Caution that is clearly absent in both Washington DC and London.

One of the key features of politics in both the US and the UK is increased risk-taking. The ability to say and do pretty much anything, without consequence, is a heady psychological mixture for some people. Each time a risky bet pays off, a lie does no political damage, the instinct is to go for an even bigger one next time. That’s how populists thrive. Until they don’t, which is only when consequences bite. Populists are often only vanquished after terrible consequences. Even then, memories can be short and we learn that cockroaches can survive anything. Maybe it’s because we don’t teach much history any more.


The ‘left behind’

The old industrial working class that comprises much of the “left behind” is a relatively small fraction of the Irish population – we didn’t have large coal, steel, shipbuilding or auto industries that withered in the face of globalisation and technological change. That’s one culture war we don’t have to fight. We do have the regional disparities apparent in virtually every other country: they appear to be an intractable fact of economic life.

Boris Johnson is determined to do something about some of those regional UK inequalities. An admirable sentiment – we can wish him luck. But it's not as if such efforts have not been made in the past. Vast amounts of time and money (much of it, ironically, European) have been thrown at the poorer parts of the UK for many years. It's tempting to argue that these efforts have obviously been unsuccessful: those disparities still exist. We should also wonder what would have happened if all that money had not been spent.

Vast amounts of money are sent from London to poorer parts. Northern Ireland is but one example. One or two commentators are beginning to make noises about how the province costs more than the UK's net contributions to the EU. There's a sentence you could put on a bus. Unlike some others, it would be true. If that fact is becomes another weapon in Britain's culture war we might be surprised where the impetus for Irish unity finally comes from. It's also been noticed that despite the £10-£12 billion (€11.7-14 billion) a year (estimates vary) that the North costs the UK taxpayer, it doesn't seem to improve things very much, at least relative to the rest of the country.

War of the ages

In both the UK and US it is perhaps only a small exaggeration to say that the biggest culture war is between old and young. Trump and Brexit wouldn’t have happened if older people hadn’t voted for them en masse. The biggest economic divide, the cost of housing, in many ways sets the interest of the young against those of the old. The young want lower property prices and rents, more houses built (and in much higher density). The old, typically, do not.

Ireland is vulnerable to this aspect of the culture wars – and not just to the generational divide over property. It is in the narrow economic interests of older people to receive higher State pensions at as young an age as possible. Arithmetic, demography and social justice all point in the opposite direction. Sinn Féin’s absurd promise to lower the retirement age is an explicit grab at a populist lever. One that flies in the face of history, common sense and fiscal logic. The decades-old retirement age of 65 was a 19th-century invention that, once upon a time, made sense: few people actually lived to collect pensions and those who did usually died within a year or two. The fact that life expectancy is now 80-plus is reason enough to raise the retirement age. There is another reason: without reform (including further reform) the pension system will, eventually, threaten the State with a fiscal crisis.

It would be a tragedy if we fall into the trap laid by naked populism, the seductive appeal of setting one group against the other. Ireland’s pension reforms have been sensible. Explain that patiently rather than adopt the language of culture war.