Tomorrow's election takes place in a relatively lucky country. That may not be obvious from the entirely justified public anger about housing and healthcare that has shaped so much of the debate. But it is striking that, according to this week's Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll three huge sources of anxiety – the economy, Brexit and climate change – barely register among the main concerns of voters.
That is the effect of good fortune: the economy is reasonably healthy; the damage from Brexit may, at least for now, have been limited; and Ireland is not yet feeling the most dramatic effects of climate change. It would be foolish to take any of this for granted, but it does mean that we will go to the polls with the sense of having some breathing space in which to reflect on what kind of society we want to be in this new decade.
It is encouraging that the polling evidence suggests that voters are not particularly interested in bribes or baubles
If this has the feeling of being a change election, it is not just because all of the parties in one way or another have placed themselves somewhere on a spectrum from gradual amendment to radical transformation. It is because, on so many levels, continuity is not a credible option. The housing and healthcare crises that have dominated the debate are themselves symptoms of a deeper problem of governance: the State’s untenable tendency to keep pouring resources into expensive and inefficient systems because short-term crisis management is easier than long-term reform.
And there are many other ways in which any government that comes to power now will have to face profound conceptual challenges: the need to decarbonise the economy; the consequences of Brexit for the future of the United Kingdom and thus for the political future of the island of Ireland; the funding of the higher education system that has been so vital to our social and economic progress; the unsustainability of a taxation system that relies so heavily on windfalls from a tiny number of transnational corporations; the persistence of the social inequality most profoundly manifested in child poverty.
These, as well as housing and healthcare, are questions that should weigh on our minds as voters. It is encouraging that the polling evidence suggests that voters are not particularly interested in bribes or baubles. Voters should also remember that these are national elections in which we should be choosing, not local fixers and dispensers of imaginary patronage, but representatives to form a government infused with urgency and vision.
If it is true that we get the politicians we deserve, it is also true that we can choose to deserve politicians who treat us, not as clients to be pacified, but rather as citizens of a dignified republic of equals. At this relatively calm moment of reflection, we should think of the great challenges ahead and consider how, in the quiet privacy of the polling booth, we can make that choice.