Breda O’Brien: We must vote against the stifling political and media consensus

Public funding and media visibility stack the deck in favour of ensconced political parties

The Taoiseach with Senator Catherine Noone. ‘She made outrageous statements about Leo Varadkar being autistic and tried to make it better saying she did not mean it literally.’ File photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

The Taoiseach with Senator Catherine Noone. ‘She made outrageous statements about Leo Varadkar being autistic and tried to make it better saying she did not mean it literally.’ File photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

Mark Molloy, a patient’s representative, has resigned from the board of the HSE. He did so because only 12 per cent of the money promised by Leo Varadkar for a maternity strategy designed to protect mothers and babies has materialised. As his wife, Róisín, pointed out last April, effectively the rest has been spent on abortion services instead.The maternity strategy was supposed to provide high-quality, safe, consistent and well-resourced care in the State’s 19 maternity units. It was designed to implement the recommendations made after the profoundly sad and unnecessary deaths of Savita Halappanavar in 2012 and Tania McCabe in 2007.

In 2012 in Portlaoise hospital, Mark and Róisín Molloy experienced not only the devastating loss of their baby, Mark, but also being told that he was stillborn. In fact, Mark lived for 22 minutes. Róisín and Mark needed every ounce of their courage and tenacity to secure an inquest.

They were told such deaths were very rare but this, also, was not true. A 2014 Prime Time programme revealed other deaths of babies in Portlaoise that could have been prevented.

Mark Molloy resigned because eight years after baby Mark’s death and six years after the Prime Time programme, he was sick of being a token presence who was still not being heard.

It is a story that is repeated over and over again.

It is not just the maternity strategy. It is not just the national children’s hospital. It is the failure to tackle homelessness in the most obvious way – by releasing land to build social and affordable housing. It is the failure to take real action on climate change. It is the failure to fund education.

Status quo

But our electoral system is set up to favour the status quo. People who have the vision, competence and integrity to make a real difference have very little visibility, not least because of the way we fund political parties with public money.

Public funding for political parties is not a bad thing in itself. A bit like democracy, public subsidy of political parties is the worst form of funding except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time, like tents at the Galway races.

The significant problem is that it stacks the deck in favour of those already comfortably ensconced in the system. For example, in 2018, Fianna Fáil had an income of €6,959,977 of which €5,791,588 was State funding. Fine Gael had an income of €6,349,896, of which €4,789,248 was public funds. Sinn Féin had €3,740,410 of which €3,389,053 was public money.  

These are staggering amounts. While it is illegal to use this funding directly on electioneering, the fact that things such as administration, salaries and youth activities are funded frees up money to spend on elections.  

Small grassroots movements cannot compete in any sense unless they reach a critical mass of 2 per cent of first preference votes in a general election, which gives them an income of roughly €200,000. Political parties need time and funding in order to grow over a number of elections into a viable alternative to the current stagnation.

Then there is the question of media coverage. It works in two ways – limited coverage for smaller parties and limited damage accruing to disciples of the zeitgeist when they mess up.

Outrageous statements

Senator Catherine Noone made outrageous statements about Leo Varadkar being autistic and tried to make it better saying she did not mean it literally. She said she used it in the way a person might use “special” or n***er but did not intend it to be taken literally.

Imagine if, say, Peadar Tóibín, leader of Aontú, attempted to explain an offensive comment by saying that he was only using it in the way that someone might use the N-word. He would have been gutted and roasted on a spit before you could say Twitter. Sure, Senator Noone has apologised (after initially denying she said it until she was informed it had been recorded). If Noone had Tóibín’s political views, she would have been forced out within 24 hours.

Voting is a vital activity. If there is any hope of new, non-populist political parties emerging as alternatives to the current stifling political and media consensus, we must give our number one preference to those candidates, even if they have no hope of being elected. It will give them some chance of achieving the 2 per cent of the vote required for public funding and therefore political survival. Think of it as voting for the common good. Or if you like, loaning your vote which will then transfer to someone else, so as to signal the deep desire for change.

If we do not reward those, including Independents, who have demonstrated deep levels of integrity, we will just keep repeating political Groundhog Day. The only difference will be that we will never experience the transformation undergone by anchorman Phil Connors that eventually allowed him to transcend the curse of repeating the same events over and over again.

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