Pat Leahy: 2018 proved the centre can indeed hold
The State’s continued rejection of radical politics was one of the year’s main trends
‘Paschal Donohoe looks around the world and frets about the pressures on centrist politics but at home, his arguments hold increasing sway.’ Photograph: Eric Luke
Here are the political trends and developments that I think were significant this year. And one modest suggestion. And some perspective.
The strengthening of the centre: this has been one of the least remarked upon but most important trends in our politics in recent years, and it continued this year. Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe looks around the world and frets about the pressures on centrist politics but at home, his arguments hold increasing sway.
Parties or candidates who are broadly of the centre, centre-right or centre-left – who wish to play a part in a government not enormously dissimilar to the one we have – now command the support of roughly three-quarters of voters, polls say. Count Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Labour, the Greens, the Social Democrats and a chunk of the Independents in that gang. What’s more, the biggest part of the bloc outside that group has signalled that it wishes to join in. Sinn Féin is a party of government, says Mary Lou McDonald.
The vast majority of the political class believes in a large free market supporting public services and a welfare state on the – more or less – social democratic European model. Truly radical politics – such as that promised by Jeremy Corbyn’s British Labour Party or Donald Trump’s Republicans – has not found a serious foothold in Ireland. Maybe that will change. But the predictable disappearance of Peter Casey from public discourse after his presidential bid suggests not, despite the fit of pearl-clutching that overcame many in the immediate aftermath of the result.
Pressure on Independents
Independent squeeze: the strengthening of support for the big parties has entailed pressure on the small parties and Independents. There was certainly a substantial vote, fed up with the big two, looking for an alternative in the last election, when 30 per cent of voters backed Independents or small parties. Polls since then suggest that number has about halved.
The parties of the radical left have dug in, and most of their TDs (though not all) can look towards the next election with some confidence. They will continue to be a loud voice (literally and metaphorically) in Irish politics, but this year suggests they are not growing their base and broadening their appeal. Look at how the centre took over the political face of the Repeal movement.
The Independents in Government have got quite comfortable there. Every politician does. The days when Fine Gael had to pay due deference to them for fear they would walk are long gone.
Succession issues: Mary Lou McDonald went to Palestine this week. It must have been a welcome break from being under fire here. The retirement of Gerry Adams from the leadership of Sinn Féin (combined with the death of Martin McGuinness last year) was an important staging post in our politics. Adjusting has been difficult for McDonald. She made a tactical error in the presidential election, and a strategic one – I think – in assuming that Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil would do coalition business with her after the next election.
Look around the world and realise that most of the world’s people today regard us with envy
Follow the leader: Micheál Martin demonstrated that he is ahead of his party on most things, which of course makes some of them resent him even more. He backed abortion, walked the tightrope of being half-in and half-out of Government, avoided an autumn election he did not want and manoeuvred his way to an extension of the confidence-and-supply agreement which he believes to be in his political interest. Martin’s judgment is now an important factor in our politics.
Goose laying golden eggs alert: rarely has there been such a combination of good economic news and severe warnings about the future. The Irish economy grew strongly this year again. Corporation tax revenues are gushing like an oil well that has hit the jackpot. We have become blasé about that but there are enough expert reports, economists’ projections and think-tank warnings to suggest this is not an inevitable state of affairs. Without that growth our politics would do an about face.
Texting in Dáil chamber
Hypocrisy alert: journalists who sit on the press bench (including this one) in – but above – the Dáil chamber are constantly texting and emailing on their phones. They are not, however, members of the assembly. Their attention is not required for the proper functioning of parliamentary business. The attention of TDs is. But many of them are constantly on their phones. To cite two recent occasions, I recently observed all but one of the Fianna Fáil TDs in the chamber on their phones. Last Wednesday, during Leaders’ Questions, nine members of the Cabinet were present; at one point, seven were on their phones.
This is not entirely a trivial issue. There is a need to protect, develop and nurture our parliamentary system. Apparently the thing visitors to the public gallery in the Dáil mention most often is the number of TDs on their phones in the chamber. That alone is sufficient reason to ban it.
Let’s not conclude on a grumpy note, though. So while Irish politics suffers from significant structural and practical problems, and maddening inefficiencies, and while our social problems are all too evident at Christmas, take some comfort from the fact that our politics still believes in its responsibility to solve these problems.
We live in an imperfect country with urgent problems. But it is a rich (in all sorts of ways) and free country whose citizens enjoy high and rising living standards. Gaze across the sweep of history and think how fortunate we are to live in a rich western country in the 21st century. Look around the world and realise that most of the world’s people today regard us with envy. Our political system played some role in that. Happy Christmas, everyone.