Pat Leahy: Winds of change shift Irish political centre to left

Government’s budget spending shows priorities of President now mainstream

President Michael D Higgins and his wife, Sabina. “Labour’s ideas, Michael D’s ideas, won out in the end” as Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil accommodated themselves to change. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

On the face of it, these are halcyon days for the people in Irish politics whom their opponents call the “liberal left”.

If there's a personification of the Irish liberal left, it's Michael D Higgins. A leftist since the heady days of the 1960s, he fought decades of political and parliamentary street battles against the conservative and often reactionary forces which dominated Irish politics and society since the foundation of the State.

He was drawn to political activism and he hungered for political power because he knew in the crucible of politics it is possible to make more of a difference, to deliver more change for the better, to do more good for the greater number, than in perhaps any other field of human endeavour.

He took to ministerial office with aplomb, accepting compromises, cutting deals and working its levers with determination and shrewdness to deliver an enduring legacy. To put the tin hat on it, he was a darling of the cultural left, creating a bridge to politics that has enlightened both the cultural and political worlds.


In a world where the tide is moving towards authoritarian strongmen and demagogues Ireland has twice elected a man who stands for the exact opposite of all that

In most countries the leftist cultural elite disdains the sordid business of politics and government with its mundanity, its shopkeeperiness, its unheroic, quotidian accommodations. In Ireland Michael D co-opted them into his project to bring culture to the centre of politics, and vice versa.

True, the presidency has no real power; perhaps many voters are content to let Michael D warble away about ethics and equality up in the Áras, while the Government gets on with the real business of juggling budgets, deciding priorities and so on. Talk left, vote right, as people have often observed of Irish politics. And yet, and yet.

As Fintan O’Toole insisted last weekend, in a world where the tide is moving towards authoritarian strongmen and demagogues, content to thrash the wretched for political gain, Ireland has twice elected – this time by an enormous, thumping majority – a man who stands for the exact opposite of all that.

Whatever way you look at it, Michael D's re-election is a helluva political and electoral achievement. The fuss over Peter Casey was understandable last weekend. But sometimes it almost obscured who actually won the election.

Michael D’s confirmation at the apex of our political system is apposite because it is mirrored in the triumph of many of the causes that have animated his life’s work. Contraception, divorce, gay rights, abortion rights; all campaigned for by Michael D before they were (as they say) profitable or popular; all achieved. We even got rid of blasphemy out of the Constitution, in a rather needless hurrah for secularism.

So what, you say. All social and personal rights; they cost nothing. The real business of government is still conducted on the centre right. But is it? Look at the recent budget, the clearest expression of an administration’s priorities and positioning.

At the beginning of this Government’s term of office it was agreed between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and its Independent pals that where additional cash was available to be spent in budgets, it would be allocated on a 2:1 ratio between spending increases and tax cuts.

That ratio has been entirely forgotten in favour of increased public spending. Paschal Donohoe cut income taxes by about €365 million on budget day. But he raised other taxes by about €715 million – and he introduced spending increases of about €1.4 billion.

In fact, what Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have done is what they have always done – they have accommodated themselves to the winds of change

He had already signalled public spending increases of more than €2.5 billion in next year’s spending estimates. My back-of-an-envelope calculation puts that at a ratio of about 11:1 in favour of spending increases. You can a call this whatever you like. But you can’t reasonably call it right wing.

That’s quite a shift. And it came about because there is clearly a significant public demand for investment in public services. It’s an illustration of how the ground has changed on these fundamental distributional questions of politics. The centre of gravity of Irish politics has moved substantially to the left.

Labour used to joke (at least, I think it was a joke) that their greatest achievement in government was making a social democrat of Leo Varadkar. Last weekend, editorialising approvingly of Peter Casey's quixotic quest, the Sunday Times – early cheerleaders for Varadkar – washed its hands of him as just "another social democrat".

Not for the last time, I fear, the Sunday Times and Labour are mistaken. Varadkar has not turned into a social democrat; he just has a keen sense of where the public is. In fairness, you don't become Taoiseach without it.

In fact, what Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have done is what they have always done; it is what explains their remarkable endurance as the largest parties in a country that has changed politically, socially and economically beyond recognition – they have accommodated themselves to the winds of change.

So it was Fianna Fáil that decriminalised homosexuality ("At our behest," shouts Labour). So it was Enda Kenny who introduced same-sex marriage ("With us in government," screams Labour, louder still). So it was Varadkar who repealed the Eighth Amendment ("What about us?" roars Labour, quite beside itself now).

Labour’s ideas, Michael D’s ideas, won out in the end. Perhaps that should cheer his former colleagues in Labour as they gather for their party conference in Dublin today. But cheerfulness is in short supply in Labour these days.

The party is hunkering down, concentrating on a handful of constituencies, trying to win back enough seats to make it relevant in the next Dáil. Its chances are a bit less than evens on this, I reckon; but it might work. What then, though? What’s next?

Over the weekend, as with all political gatherings, the veterans will tell war stories from the old day. Labour talks about the past rather too much. It should talk about the future, too.