Breda O’Brien: What wisdom can we glean from the election?

‘Social issues’ do count. All politics is local. People don’t want recovery for the few.

Lucinda Creighton: her defeat was largely due to Fine Gael tribalism. Photograph: Eric Luke

Lucinda Creighton: her defeat was largely due to Fine Gael tribalism. Photograph: Eric Luke

 

From this general election, some broad political principles are clear. For example, the way people vote is not influenced by the so-called social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage – except when it is.

In other words, abortion was not a top priority for the vast majority of voters, and neither was the referendum to alter the meaning of marriage in the Constitution. However, for a significant minority of people, these are burning issues.

In a single transferable vote system like ours, that becomes vital, because a mere handful of votes can make the difference between political annihilation and latter-day Lazarus status. There is a sub-section of this principle – people don’t canvass for candidates on the basis of social issues – except when they do.

People who are not party activists tramped the streets and drove the badly lit roads of rural Ireland for candidates they felt represented cherished values.

Gráinne Healy, former co-director of the Yes Equality campaign, knocked on doors for John Lyons and Averil Power, and distributed leaflets for Joan Burton.

The Yes Equality campaign detailed with some pride the access they had to successive government ministers. I am sure they wanted to ensure it continued.

Achievements

True, some barely drew breath before launching a campaign to remove the most fundamental equality from the Constitution – the equal right to life – but they are a minority of a minority.

On the other hand, people who want to preserve that equality, where you deserve the right to life because you are human, and are not denied it because of your age or level of dependency, felt utterly alienated from the corridors of power.

They were grateful to people willing to represent them, and they have long memories. So they got out and canvassed.

Scores of people knocked on doors for candidates they saw as representing a more conservative viewpoint. It was amazing to witness, but perhaps unsurprising.

Only a political naif would fail to see the impact, particularly for some Fianna Fáil and independent candidates, and others not in thrall to the groupthink that strangles Irish politics.

Certainly, Renua did not do well. But Renua ran scared from being presented as a pro-life party, rather than embracing it. They were terrified it would alienate urban voters.

Many members of Renua were also damaged by another principle emerging from this election – all politics is local, a saying often attributed to Tip O’Neill, the veteran Irish-American politician.

It has two meanings, the first and most obvious one being that people vote for candidates who will represent their interests and those of their area.

It explains the phenomenal success of the Healy-Rae brothers. Once, I was giving a talk on the marriage referendum in Kerry, and a vaguely familiar man with a cap was putting out chairs about an hour before the event.

It was Michael Healy-Rae. He apologised that he could not attend, but he wanted to give a hand. No voters there to impress, because the room would be empty for another hour, just someone helping out because help was needed.

It also explains Katherine Zappone’s success. For decades, she and Anne Louise Gilligan have been active in their local community, particularly with women’s education, in an area of significant disadvantage. Local people did not forget, because all politics is local.

Urban sophisticates sneer at the Healy-Rae phenomenon, deriding it as tribal. However, the second meaning of “all politics is local” is that people are tribal. They create in-groups and out-groups, and the harshest punishment is reserved for traitors to the cause.

Lucinda Creighton and other Renua members fell foul of that phenomenon. The greatest tribalism is not in Kerry, or between political parties. It is within parties.

Some Fine Gael people who wore out shoes campaigning for the bright star Lucinda in 2011, were determined to punish her for abandoning their core value, power for Fine Gael.

To hell with admiring someone for being principled. A small number even booed her when she entered the count centre. All politics is tribal, indeed.

Too high a cost

The post-election situation looks like chaos, but it actually represents a rare opportunity for brave leadership. Imagine a programme for government that prioritised homelessness, health system reform, mental health, palliative care for all ages, and mitigating the impact of climate change?

If at the same time, genuine reform of the Oireachtas were implemented, including raising the status of the average TD from rubber stamp to legislator, perhaps a government could govern with competence and pride. And possibly turn on its head the assumption that any government is going to be automatically ousted at the next election.

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