Fintan O'Toole: Safety-first politics has had its day

We have devised the most risk-averse political system in the democratic world. But more of the same is no longer the safe bet

We are invited to choose between the outgoing Taoiseach and the outgoing leader of the Opposition who has kept him in power. We are offered two mildly different flavours of the same centre-right politics of continuity. And if anything, the differences between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are narrower than they have even been in the almost century-long history of Civil War politics. Photograph: Alan Betson

We are invited to choose between the outgoing Taoiseach and the outgoing leader of the Opposition who has kept him in power. We are offered two mildly different flavours of the same centre-right politics of continuity. And if anything, the differences between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are narrower than they have even been in the almost century-long history of Civil War politics. Photograph: Alan Betson

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When I worked as a theatre critic, I always remembered something the great playwright Tom Murphy said to me – that the big question to ask of any drama is: what is at stake? It is the question that all of us as voters in the general election have to ask ourselves.

The problem is that the answer our political system suggests is so utterly contradictory. What is at stake seems at once to be an awful lot and very little. There is so much on the table but we are invited to treat the game as if we are playing for matchsticks.  

At one level, we all know what’s at stake. Our species is facing an existential crisis. The disastrous failure of housing policy makes life much harder than it needs to be. The inability to get access to timely healthcare kills some people and leaves hundreds of thousands in avoidable suffering. In pretty much every part of the public realm, from the Defence Forces to the universities, we see the consequences of governmental neglect. And on top of all of this, the political consequences of Brexit are only beginning to play out – the next decade may well see historic shifts in the political architecture of these islands.

But even though the stakes are so high, the contest, as it is framed, is very low voltage. We are invited to choose between the outgoing Taoiseach and the outgoing leader of the Opposition who has kept him in power. We are offered two mildly different flavours of the same centre-right politics of continuity. And if anything, the differences between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are narrower than they have even been in the almost century-long history of Civil War politics.

This is the great strength of Irish politics. It is stable and predictable. It has withstood enormous social change

The wedge issues that used to divide them – policy on Northern Ireland, attitudes to social liberalism – are blunted by consensus. Try explaining to an interested foreigner what would change if Micheál Martin were taoiseach instead of Leo Varadkar and you find yourself teasing out marginal distinctions.

Attitude to risk

At the heart of this contradiction between the content and the form of the election is our attitude to risk. We like to think of ourselves as an imaginative and free-spirited people. But we have devised perhaps the most risk-averse political system in the democratic world. Arguably, the last really big risk the Irish electorate took was in 1932, when it brought Fianna Fáil in from the cold and made it the new natural party of government. That was a pretty bold move, placing in power the losers of the still-raw Civil War. Éamon de Valera promised radical constitutional, economic and social change. The stake were very high and voters took the risk.

De Valera wrote: “For the sake of the women of the world at any rate I am glad it is over. They it is who have suffered most. Their imaginings have been far worse than the worst horrors the men have had to endure.” Photograph: General Photographic Agency/Getty Images
Éamon de Valera: "Promised radical constitutional, economic and social change". File photograph: General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

But that was 88 years ago – a whole long lifetime. Since then, the same political duopoly has been in power. Risk has been almost eliminated from the system. This is the great strength of Irish politics. It is stable and predictable. It has withstood enormous social change and weathered the Troubles, mass emigration and repeated periods of boom and bust. But this is also the great weakness of Irish politics. There is, in politics as in everything else, a relationship between risk and reward. Little risk means little reward. The electoral stakes remain low even when the real-world risks are very high. Nothing much is ventured – but in return nothing much is gained.

Risk aversion is becoming ever more risky. In a very unstable world, your desire to avoid change does not mean that change will avoid you

This culture of risk aversion has survived because the voters have chosen it. But there are two good reasons to think that its time is running out. One is that its democratic legitimacy is ebbing away.

When over 80 per cent of voters backed Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, there was no denying that this was what the Irish people wanted. Now, the two parties will probably get around 55 per cent of the vote between them. But what the system says is that the only real choice to be made about government is within this 55 per cent: Micheál or Leo? It is a way of framing the election that leaves almost half the electorate out in the cold.

Even more risky

The second reason to think that safety-first politics has had its day is more paradoxical. It is that risk aversion is becoming ever more risky. In a very unstable world, your desire to avoid change does not mean that change will avoid you. We are in an era, not just for Ireland but for humanity, in which radical transformation is the only safe path. Continuity is danger. More of the same is the recipe for disaster. And at a more parochial level, we know that political continuity has been failing to produce the goods.

The great advantage of consensus ought to be that, since policies change only within a very narrow range of possibilities, medium and long-term strategies can be implemented in areas like health, housing and child poverty. But they aren’t. This is the other paradox: genuine continuity, in the sense of real long-term planning, would be a radical departure.

Declan Kiberd has described the Irish as “apple-lickers” – if we’d been in the Garden of Eden, we would have given the apple a cautious little lick. Sooner or later, we’re going to have to bite the apple. 

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