Europe looking to see if Ireland can answer call for change
Next government must implement agenda to improve quality of people’s lives
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald at Leinster House on Thursday. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins
The vote here last Saturday has surprised, if not shocked, pundits. Sinn Féin, a party viewed as being on the ropes because of its disappointing performance in the local and European elections, has not only rebounded, it has outperformed the two main parties.
The leaders of those parties must now make a potentially fateful decision – maintain the status quo to avoid Sinn Féin forming part of the government or recognise Sinn Féin’s electoral success and grant them an opportunity to, well, become part of the political establishment.
However, to grasp the real significance of the result and its implications for Ireland, we have to look beyond internal and parochial political calculations.
It would seem that there is a genuine desire in Ireland for progressive change that transcends voting behaviour in once-off elections
We also have to view the emerging outcome of this election from the perspective of international political trends and in relation to Ireland’s continuing position as a global example – poster-boy even – for progressive politics.
While people here in Ireland were initially glued to the counts, and now to the business of government formation, what is transpiring in Ireland is also of immense interest to the international community, not least to our neighbours in the UK.
The question is not whether Ireland differs from other countries where the established political order has been upended because Sinn Féin is a left-leaning nationalist alternative rather than a right-wing one.
Rather, the question is whether Ireland will be able to satisfy voters’ appetite for radical change and address the fundamental social problems, economic inequality and concern over climate change that underlie it.
The international community will be watching to see not just if the new government responds but how it responds.
Based on the election results and our own research at Tasc, it would seem that there is a genuine desire in Ireland for progressive change that transcends voting behaviour in once-off elections.
Interviews we conducted, to be published as part of a larger report later this year, revealed that relatively privileged younger men and women possess no political allegiance. This would seem to have been confirmed by the general election.
The men and women in their 30s who were interviewed said that they wanted greater investment in public services in order to feel more secure.
Critically, however, they also said that they did not mind paying taxes to have these services – though they did tend to believe that those on the highest incomes should pay more.
Another point of international interest will surely be that immigration was an important issue for just 1 per cent of those questioned for the exit poll
Even those with assets or permanent, relatively high-paying jobs expressed little optimism that the market could be relied upon to deliver the necessary solutions. Instead they looked to the provision of public services as the answer to entrenched social problems.
A couple with a house said they knew it was overvalued and that they would lose money in a recession. A civil servant with a PhD said he felt lucky compared with his peers with similar qualifications, as they faced years of precariousness.
Others thought they deserved their income because they worked hard but that there were not enough opportunities for social mobility in Ireland because of unequal access to quality education and public services.
And we are not unique. The study is a cross-national comparison of the top 10 per cent of income earners and their views on inequality in Ireland, Sweden, the UK and Spain. Hence the interest in what happens now in Ireland.
It is quite clear, from the election and previous plebiscites, that alienation and economic insecurity is not as likely to lead to the mainstream acceptance of anti-immigrant policies, scepticism of the European Union, climate change denial and imposition of conservative ‘family values’, as has happened in other countries.
Another point of international interest will surely be that immigration was an important issue for just 1 per cent of those questioned for the exit poll.
However, despite the positive distinctions from recent international political trends, the next government, whatever form it takes, has no room for complacency. If it does not deliver, it will undoubtedly continue to stoke the disaffection reflected in the vote, with unknown consequences.
The alternative – and the one that will be of most interest elsewhere – is to implement a policy agenda based on improving the quality of people’s lives through prioritising investment in public services and, importantly, demonstrating a commitment to a better collective future.
Policies would be measured not just through the impact on employment or education rates, but also in relation to working conditions, pay and support services such as childcare.
This is the message that the electorate seems to have sent through their ballots. And it is the ability to reflect this message in policy that will set Ireland apart from many of its European counterparts.
By pursuing policies that make a constructive difference to everyday lives, a new Irish government has the chance to offer an alternative direction – to buck the regressive trend and to take the political road less travelled.
All eyes will be on Ireland.
Shana Cohen is the director of Tasc, the think tank for action on social change