Frank McNally dissects the political parties’ manifestos ahead of the General Election

Documents are littered with ‘roadmaps’, ‘kick-starts’ and ‘roll-outs’, not to mention terrifying ‘night mayors’

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald pictured at the publication of her party’s general election manifesto this week. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald pictured at the publication of her party’s general election manifesto this week. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

Contrary to former New York governor Mario Cuomo’s belief that politicians need to “campaign in poetry and govern in prose”, there is never much in Irish election manifestos that you could honestly call poetic.

Their language is almost always prosaic, even when the ideas are fanciful, as is often the case.

The genre has some obvious parallels with science fiction, in that it’s an attempt to project into the near future, with the usual tendency to overestimate the amount of progress likely, whether with flying cars or a world-class rural broadband network.

On the other hand, unlike – say – Blade Runner, which foresaw a high-tech but dystopian future, manifestos tend to be more optimistic in general.

The Greens’ 2020 document is a possible exception, because the dystopia they have warned us about for decades seems to be already here. Hence the keynote message, simultaneously alarming and reassuring: “We’re not just trying to save the whole world – we’re going to make your world a bit better…”

Amid all the futurism of the parties’ latest manifestos, of course, there is also plenty about the past. The ongoing centenaries of the State’s founding years provoke much retrospection on a century the tone of which was set by Kevin O’Higgins when, anticipating Cuomo by decades, he delivered his dismissive two-word review – “mostly poetry” — of the Programme for the First Dáil.

The parties of the left, which have spent most of the intervening century out of power, are equally withering (if at much greater length) about the 100 years of pragmatism that replaced the poetry.

In its summary of the main parties’ latest failures, for example, Sinn Féin might have been channelling the ghost of WB Yeats when he lectured: “You have disgraced yourselves again”.

The d-word features prominently in the manifesto, as when it declares: “The failure of successive administrations to save Moore Street, the last extant 1916 battlefield in our capital city, is a disgrace”.

Sinn Féin’s many pledges including making a national monument of “the 1916 terrace, it’s (sic) yards and laneways”. And yes, that might be ungrammatical, but in the all-inclusive new republic SF envisages, clearly, there will be a role for redundant apostrophes too.

Whatever about WB, the manifesto writers must also have been thinking about his brother Jack when suggesting Ireland should aim for 20 medals at the 2024 Olympics in Paris. This ambitious plan may require the reintroduction of painting and – yes — poetry as Olympic disciplines, which yielded an Irish silver (Yeats) and bronze (Oliver St John Gogarty) the last time the games were held in Paris, in 1924.

A less specific but even grander plan in the manifestos is Fianna Fáil’s promise to “build a Republic of Readers”. This would honour the nation’s great literary heritage, FF says, and be achieved through such things as a book gifting scheme and automatic library membership for children.

But if to comes to pass, it might also necessitate tracking down and bringing to justice the people who elsewhere in the Fianna Fáil document committed such crimes against reading as the following sentence (on the subject of small enterprises): “This will set out a new visionary long-term strategic blueprint to recast SME policy […,] one which engenders pro-enterprise and pro-entrepreneur policies.”

Or this, elsewhere (on childcare): “The au pair experience can be a deeply enriching experience for au pairs…”.

By refreshing contrast to Fianna Fáil’s gobbledegook about small businesses, if also worrying in its own way, is a promise in the Fine Gael manifesto: “We will expand the role of the LEOs”. That last work turns out to be an acronym for Local Enterprise Offices, not a reference the party leader. Even so, it occurs in the same general section that talks about the party’s policy on artificial intelligence. And in a campaign where the Taoiseach’s alleged lack of emotion or empathy has been the subject of comment, it’s an unfortunate reminder for sci-fi fans that he shares a three-letter moniker with HAL, the demented computer in 2001 A Space Odyssey.

In a similarly dystopian vein, the FG document later promises to give the people of Dublin and Cork what, if the manifesto was being read out loud, might sound like “nightmares”.

Thankfully, as it appears in print, the term is “night mayors”: a phenomenon already well established on mainland Europe.

For a truly futuristic idea in the party manifestos, however, you have to look elsewhere. At first glance, Fianna Fáil’s promise of “edible playgrounds” in schools sounded like something worthy of Philip K Dick. On closer inspection, disappointingly, they seem to mean “herb gardens”.

But then there’s People Before Profit’s transport policy, which envisions “a high speed rail service joining cities and towns from Cork to Donegal”. Now that would be radical, although Donegal (along with Cavan and Monaghan) would probably welcome even a low speed rail service first. Pending which, a more realistic hope might be flying cars.

As for ground-based cars, their ubiquity in Ireland helps explain the continued overreliance of our political parties on the word “roadmap” as a metaphor. True, there are also a lot of “kick-starts” in the manifestos, and the inevitable “roll-outs” (the most awkward thing being rolled out this time is Sinn Féin’s “Baby Box” scheme, unless the €15m cost includes wheels). But not even the Greens, when describing plans for increased investment in the arts, could resist the allure of the “roadmap” analogy.

It was also used by the Social Democrats to describe their entire manifesto, which was last to be published. At 123 pages, it’s also one of the longest, against which the party has opted for a snappy three-word title/slogan: “Invest in Better”. That’s the height of fashion in marketing these days. Mind you, with its also-trendy use of an adverb as a noun, it sounds uncomfortably like a banking commercial.

By contrast, the gaze of Fine Gael’s election slogan/manifesto title is: “A Future to Look Forward To”. And apart from flouting an old - now rightly discredited - rule of grammar, that you should never end a sentence with a preposition, that’s also a prize example of tautology. Still, the party could cite respectable literary precedent.

As a statement of the obvious, “A Future to Look Forward to” is no worse than the standard English translation of Marcel Proust’s masterpiece: “Remembrance of Things Past”.