New political shifts merely a seed for greater change

 

The swing from FF to FG is a vital move. But the electorate must authorise a deeper ideological overhaul, writes ELAINE BYRNE

PRESIDENT BARACK Obama celebrated his birthday last Friday – the day Irish voters cast their votes in the local, European and Dublin byelections. Obama, the first black president of the United States, personifies a fundamental political shift, the implications of which the world has yet to fully appreciate. The spirit of change was certainly in the air on the island of Ireland over the weekend.

Or was it?

Fianna Fáil obtained its lowest share of the vote to date and, for the first time, Fine Gael now boasts the largest representation in local and European constituencies. Yet the combined Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael first-preference local election vote from 2004 to 2009 remains unchanged at 57 per cent.

Fianna Fáil’s loss of seven percentage points was Fine Gael’s direct gain. The transfer of support from one centre party to another does not constitute an ideological political revolution.

The dynamics of Irish politics have changed, not the fundamentals.

Instead, it marks the maturity of the electorate which has embraced volatility and dispensed with loyalty. Prof Michael Marsh of Trinity College, Dublin, recently published the Irish National Election Study, which found that at least half the electorate were floating voters.

The volatility of the political landscape has been in place over the last 20 years but it was masked, perhaps, by the economic good times. Indeed, the most common transfer pattern in the 2002 general election was between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and vice versa.

Former Fine Gael taoiseach Garret FitzGerald’s intervention on behalf of Fianna Fáil’s Eoin Ryan last week would also suggest a breakdown of traditionally assumed hostilities between voters of both parties.

Fianna Fáil’s core virtue of loyalty suffered a blow with the demolition of the dynasties of Bertie Ahern, Micheál Martin, Batt O’Keeffe, John O’Dennehy, Dan Wallace, Seán Ardagh, Ivor Callely, Eoin Ryan and Séamus Brennan. The dynastical rejection may in fact symbolise a coming of age for the dual mandate ban, introduced at the 2004 local elections.

More worryingly for Fianna Fáil, it may also represent the party membership’s rejection of its controversial candidate selection process.

Political revolutions and historic days aside, the long-term implication of the weekend’s elections is regional fragmentation.

Fianna Fáil is now primarily a rural political party as far as local government is concerned. In Dublin, the party is fourth behind Labour, Fine Gael and Independents, holding fewer than 12 of Dublin City Council’s 52 seats.

In Cork City Council, the party has just five seats out of 31. Limerick City Council and Waterford City Council have just one Fianna Fáil representative each, while in Galway City Council the party holds only three of 15 seats. Meanwhile, Brian Crowley flies the only urban flag for Fianna Fáil in the European Parliament.

Fianna Fáil has deep fault lines in urban constituencies which have been seized upon by Labour, Sinn Féin and left-leaning Independents.

Clearly identifiable left wing candidates topped the poll in 17 of the 22 Dublin wards, including the remarkable 4,194 first preferences by Damian O’Farrell, protege of Finian McGrath. Fianna Fáil’s Eoin Ryan has been sent to the political wilderness by the Socialist Party’s Joe Higgins in the capital’s European Elections.

Loyalty has been exchanged for volatility.

Urban Ireland is now dominated by the left. Fianna Fáil is increasingly becoming identified as a rural political party. A resurgent Fine Gael can lay claim to being the most nationally representative party in local government and in the European Parliament.

If 2009 is to be Ireland’s Obama moment, then this is the opportunity for systemic change. As a country, we have to get away from sacrificing systemic analysis of our institutions for short-term individual descriptions of personalities. George “The Superfluous” Lee and Nessa “daughter of the former president” Childers are attractive distractions but what are their policies?

People are more engaged than ever before and have an appetite for the deep-seated transformation of Ireland’s systems of education, health, politics and finance – systems born in the 20th century which must be made fit for purpose for the 21st century.

In keeping with this spirit of regeneration, the Political Studies Association of Ireland will host a conference in the arts block of Trinity College Dublin on Monday, June 22nd. The conference will provide a forum for Ireland’s leading political scientists, political commentators and interested practitioners to come together to discuss their views on options for future systemic reform.

Entitled Are Our Institutions Fit for Purpose? Political Reform in the Republic of Ireland, the conference is open to the public and especially welcomes public participation. Further information can be obtained at http://irishpoliticalreform.wordpress.com.

In particular, the conference will examine Irish political culture, lobbying and the policy making process, the PR(single transferable vote) electoral system, local government reform, the governmental system and Dáil and Seanad reform.

Fianna Fáil’s worst defeat in its history, Fine Gael’s best performance to date, Labour’s extraordinary resurgence and the near-obliteration of the Green Party amount merely to swings and roundabouts of Irish political dynamics. They are utterly meaningless without fundamental systemic change.

Carpe diem and all that.