The next government will need to pay more than lip service to the aching need for change
Sign of the Times survey: The hunger for economic and social change hasn’t gone away
A lorry showing images of Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar in February. File photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters
The third and final part of the 2020 Sign of the Times survey by Behaviour & Attitudes is published by The Irish Times today. The annual snapshot of Irish life combines quantitative and digital qualitative techniques with B&A published data on the economy, health, technology and shopping. The research was conducted in January and February 2020.
Since the middle of last month, the entire world has been fixated on the unfolding coronavirus catastrophe. Invariably, the focus thus far has been two-fold: attempting to control the virus from a public health perspective, and maintaining an economic lifeline to individuals and businesses facing chronic cashflow shortages and potential insolvency.
In Ireland, however, there has been a third dynamic at play: an ongoing attempt by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to agree a programme for government, and convince at least one of the smaller parties to join them in a coalition administration.
Indeed, such has been the all-consuming nature of the Covid-19 management plan, we could almost forget that just nine weeks ago Ireland held a general election which produced a seismic and potentially transformative outcome.
In this, the final of the Behaviour & Attitudes 2020 Sign of the Times study reports, we explore the factors that shaped that historical election outcome. In doing so, we gain a unique perspective on the societal and psychological underpinnings of the vote for change, and why they will still need to be addressed by the next administration as part of the post-Covid programme for Government.
As part of the study, our research participants were asked to define, in their own words, Ireland’s national identity. The results of this exercise were illuminating, and painted a positive and genuinely heartfelt picture of what it means to be Irish.
In building up their picture of this national persona, respondents often pointed to our strong sense of shared history and social identity, and our unashamed celebration of it. There is still a belief that Irish people value family and community, and that when the chips are down, we look after each other. We pride ourselves on being great talkers, up for the craic, with a roguish disrespect for authority.
Yet when this national DNA is placed under the microscope, it becomes clear that at least some of the responsibility for our persistent economic and social woes is believed to rest on our collective shoulders. For example, while most feel that Government policy is to blame for healthcare and housing failures, we must all take responsibility for the lack of social networks to support those most affected by them.
The bottom line is that many felt they had yet to benefit from the economic recovery
This narrative suggests that while we have talked and complained a lot about the shortcomings of successive governments, we have not really held them to account. Ultimately, we have tended to slip too readily into the national “it will be grand” mentality. At least, that is, until this year’s election.
Having gracefully accepted some of the blame for our prevailing problems, the research subjects were swift to express their deep dissatisfaction with recent administrations, for a range of interrelated reasons.
While practically all research participants were aware that the Irish economy had been “doing well” at a macro level in the years leading up to the general election, their personal experiences on the ground suggested a different reality.
The bottom line is that many felt they had yet to benefit from the economic recovery, with constant pressure on household finances through a mix of the ever-increasing cost of living, and high taxes. And all of this before we even begin to consider the additional effects of a post-Covid-19 recession on people’s ability to cope financially.
For example, three-quarters of our survey respondents indicated that they had been noticing increases in the costs of goods and services; half claimed theywere merely “getting by” financially, and one in eight were actually struggling to make ends meet. In fact, a quarter claimed that they had less money in their pockets at the beginning of this year compared with a year ago, and just 40 per cent had benefited from the economic revival.
A number of respondents subsequently posed the same question: if the economy had technically been in recovery for seven years, where had all the money gone? Many have clearly concluded that it was squandered by successive administrations through a mix of incompetence (from the National Children’s Hospital to the Leinster House printer) and poor governance (propping up the banks, failure to control commercial landlords etc).
These perceived failings have had a profound impact not only on people’s finances, but also on their psychological outlook for the future.
For the middle classes, the expectation had been that sacrifices made early in life would lead to rewards in later years. With many of these rewards failing to materialise, people had begun to seriously question when, if ever, “their time” would come. This sentiment was expressed across all strands of the research, often by way of specific examples of how life expectations have been consistently curbed, and often dashed.
Thus, we had younger adults speak of having expected to be in a position to save for a home, only to end up living back with their parents to scrape together a deposit. Those at the early family stage could speak of looking forward to going back to work when they had kids, with the subsequent cost of childcare meaning they ended up effectively working for free.
The general feeling was that their voices did not matter to the powers-that-be, and that they were trapped in a rut
Others in their later years had harboured desires and expectations of a comfortable retirement, to find that they may have to wait until their late 60s or even longer before they would receive even the basic State pension.
For those in lower income brackets, this sense of despair was even more acute. Here, the general feeling was that their voices did not matter to the powers-that-be, and that they were trapped in a rut, with little or no opportunity to extricate themselves from it.
This is the context within which the electorate cast its vote this year. In discussing their concerns, anxieties and disappointments, the language used by the research participants, and the emotional intensity with which they made their points, was noteworthy.
Many of them identified what they believed to be a disconnect between the past and recent actions of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael on the one hand, and an understanding of their own personal struggles on the other.
This is why so many of the electorate gave their first-preference vote to candidates outside the two traditional main parties. And also why any new government will need to pay more than lip service to the aching need for fundamental economic and social change in post-crisis Ireland.
Ian McShane is executive chairman of Behaviour & Attitudes