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Fine Gael shows its detachment from voters

Abstractions of Brexit more comfortable for the party than homelessness and gang crime

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. ‘By focusing on abstracts such as Brexit, and appealing to people’s self-interest by pitching tax cuts, Fine Gael has laid out its stall.’ Photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins

Fine Gael’s first week of campaigning solidified its sense of detachment from the electorate, which has also been a characteristic of its two successive governments. The party’s opening message, which banked on Brexit management as the party’s main talent, is not a vote-getter. Brexit will not be the burning question on the doors. Neither is the electorate enthusiastic about Fine Gael’s negative campaigning and juvenile attacks on Fianna Fáil, online and off. Now would be a good time for the party’s young establishment to grow up.

The government’s term may have been defined by Brexit, but it’s hard to believe that any other party or coalition in power would not have also tried to get a good deal for Ireland. Most of all, the fundamental awkwardness with centring Brexit in a campaign is that Brexit hasn’t happened yet – but the housing crisis sure has. People don’t necessarily know how Brexit will affect them, but they certainly know the impact of dealing with hospital waiting lists and relatives on trolleys.

Campaign strategies attempt to push the issues parties want to talk about to the fore. But events also snap other issues into focus. Last week was characterised by two extreme events: the horrific murder of 17-year-old Keane Mulready-Woods, and the serious injuries suffered by a man caused by an industrial clean-up vehicle as he was sleeping in a tent along the Grand Canal. These events illustrate two serious issues in our society – organised crime and homelessness.

Broader crisis

Other extreme stories have recently emerged from the housing crisis: a freezing woman wandering the streets; a photograph of an elderly woman eating donated food from a plastic bowl on a window sill; homeless toddlers unable to crawl due to a lack of space; homeless children slow to chew because their parents can’t cook them proper food. These are not random anomalies. They are the symptoms of a much broader crisis now embedded in Irish society that happened on Fine Gael’s watch. These stories are the peaks of what lies beneath. Not so long ago, it was a scandal that people were sleeping in tents. Now it’s a scandal that a homeless person in a tent is crushed in their sleep.


Stories that emerge from the landscape of organised crime are also becoming more extreme. There is no doubt that the horrific murder of a teenager is a new, depraved low. Our housing crisis has little in common with drug-related crime, but it shares the stage in Irish society by being a chronic issue, where the daily drudgery of both crises goes largely unreported, and only the extremes make the news. People who do not live in the shadow of drug-related crime tend to hear about it only when young men are shot. We rarely hear about the young men who are beaten up, threatened, coerced or blackmailed, or the young people who are perpetrators or victims of crime who kill themselves.

Events that encapsulate the issues are emerging from a society that has been moulded by a decade of Fine Gael in power

Fine Gael’s response to the murder of Mulready-Woods feels reactive and empty. Framing drug-related crime solely as an issue of “law and order” places the entirety of responsibility on the gardaí. The gardaí are already “tough on crime”. That’s their job.

Politicians talk far less about getting tough on the factors that lead young men in particular to choosing this route in life, and why it’s an option that does not present itself in wealthy communities. A frequent refrain is how recreational drug users with disposable incomes fuel organised crime, but it’s not wealth that creates organised crime, it’s poverty.

Consistent poverty

According to Social Justice Ireland, 230,000 children are living in poverty in Ireland, one in five children under the age of 18. Of those, 110,000 are living in consistent poverty, meaning they are living in households with incomes below the poverty line and are experiencing deprivation. It’s no coincidence that the trappings and traps of organised crime are a feature of some areas of the country and not others. In Dublin, for example, the inequalities and opportunity gaps between communities mere miles apart are stark. What does any prospective party vying power propose to do about the fact that 90 per cent of school pupils in Donnybrook go on to college, but just 16 per cent in Darndale?

It’s worth remembering that organised crime was also an issue in the 2016 general election, when gunmen stormed the Regency Hotel in Dublin on February 5th that year, killing the Kinahan cartel associate David Byrne. Three days later, Eddie Hutch snr was murdered at his home in Summerhill in Dublin 1. The reason that election took place to a backdrop of organised crime is because everything in Irish society does. It is a chronic issue that, like the housing crisis, has escalated on Fine Gael’s watch.

The party’s detached approach to campaigning is perhaps a symptom of its own detachment from the realities of Irish society, but it also forecasts a reliance on the detachment of potential voters in order for Fine Gael to return to power. By focusing on abstracts such as Brexit, and appealing to people’s self-interest by pitching tax cuts, Fine Gael has laid out its stall. Unfortunately for them, the real issues won’t pause, because events that encapsulate them, such as those last week, are emerging from a society that has been moulded by a decade of Fine Gael in power. It suits Fine Gael to root a slogan in an undefined future, when taking responsibility for the present is a much more uncomfortable task.