Pat Leahy: Don’t expect neat left/right split in Irish politics

Lack of extremity, voter power and a sturdy Civil Service make lurch to reform unlikely

Taoiseach Micheál Martin:  With Leo Varadkar, he is frequently labelled a right-wing maniac by opponents but nobody would seriously recognise them as such. Photograph: Maxwells

Taoiseach Micheál Martin: With Leo Varadkar, he is frequently labelled a right-wing maniac by opponents but nobody would seriously recognise them as such. Photograph: Maxwells

 

Since the economic crash and the subsequent great recession – and the political dislocation that followed it – the tide of Irish politics has been leftward.

Sinn Féin has grown from a small party on the fringes to become the mainstay of the opposition benches and the presumptive – in many eyes, anyway – leaders of the next government. More broadly, those in favour of radical change make up a greater number of TDs than ever before. The “vote left-transfer left” idea at elections will be increasingly important. The conventional wisdom expects a clear right/left divide emerging, personified by the anticipated Fine Gael/Sinn Féin competition.

But while Irish politics is certainly changing, don’t expect it to conform to a neat left/right design anytime soon. There are three characteristics of the Irish system that will complicate that picture and be slow to change. There were examples of all three in the last week.

First, for many voters, the ideological stuff is irrelevant. The end of the cosy duopoly previously managed by the old Civil War parties came about because of practical failures of governing, not because of the ideological conversion of the electorate.

A lot of moderate or middle-ground voters recoil from a stridently ideological vision of politics. They are of a more utilitarian bent. They want to see a decent health service and a solution to the housing crisis, but are largely neutral about how those goals should be achieved. There is more than an echo of Tony Blair’s “What matters is what works” about their political views.

Essential centrism

Nor is it correct to lump Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael into the stereotypical right-wing corner. Of course each party sometimes exhibits deeply ingrained conservative instincts but an examination of the records of Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar in government reveals both to be centrists convinced of the power of the State to fix things. Though both are frequently labelled right-wing maniacs by their opponents, nobody anywhere else would seriously recognise them as such. Neither has sought to roll back the frontiers of the State. Neither has sought to cut taxes to the extent that public services, welfare spending or State activities are constrained; in fact, quite the opposite.

This is a country that has been electing centrist governments to implement policies for which there was a broad consensus for rather a long time

This is a country that has been electing centrist governments to implement policies for which there was a broad consensus for rather a long time. Of course the protagonists pretended to be different; but the truth is that government policy changed little even though governments changed pretty frequently.

The duopolists have also been utterly pliable toward the prevailing orthodoxies. As was clear this week, they will adopt left-wing policies if they think a. they’ll be popular and b. they might work. While announcing another round of borrowing and spending on Tuesday, the two leaders declared they would like to expand welfare spending further in the next budget. A few days later, Fianna Fáil Senators shuffled on to the plinth at Leinster House to promise a referendum on a right to housing. You can call this a lot of things, but right-wing ain’t one of them.

Second, this political superstructure was built upon the foundation of a hyper-representative electoral system through which voters who shout loudest get their concerns ventilated by their politicians. The charge that Irish politicians are out of touch with their voters has always been laughable. They are more in touch with their voters than any politicians in Europe and know that the voters insist that they advocate on their behalf endlessly. The politicians understand that if they do not follow the instructions of the voters, they will be turfed out in favour of someone who will.

Powerful interests

There is a third element that interacts with these first two characteristics. The permanent government of the Civil Service, allied to the vested interests of the public service unions, is a strong barrier to any reforms that threaten the accepted way of doing things. Government policy has often represented a sort of mushy amalgamation of the country’s powerful interests – powerful industries, public sector interests, the professions – which was good at delivering stability but hopeless at reforming itself.

So is this deeply entrenched political order about to change? I wonder. Opposition parties often seem happy to operate its myriad hypocrisies.

We still have a politics, after all, in which politicians and parties can thunder with righteous fury about the housing crisis – and then the very same politicians and parties object to practically every large housing project that is proposed. There may be a way of fixing the housing crisis without building houses, but it is not clear to me what it is.

We have a politics in which left-wing parties oppose a tax on property; in which they oppose increases in inheritance tax

We have a politics in which left-wing parties oppose a tax on property; in which left-wing parties oppose increases in inheritance tax; in which centrist parties of government, who trumpet their fiscal caution, borrow to spend in a way that would make a drunken sailor – not to mind a socialist – blush.

No wonder foreigners find our political system confusing. I tell them there’s plenty more where that came from.

A truly reforming government would operate sustainable fiscal policies while progressing positive social change. It would prioritise the public interest over the interests of the public sector. It would explain that the public good sometimes necessitates private inconvenience.

On the two great issues that seem set to dominate politics for the near future, it would tell people that houses can’t be built overnight and that you can’t solve a housing crisis near you without building houses near you; it would tell people that you can’t reform the health service without reforming the way the health service works. It would be tell people that trade-offs and unpalatable choices are the essence of government. It would be straight with people.

Lots of people think politics is entering a new phase now. So, let’s see exactly how new it turns out to be.

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