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Stephen Collins: Reluctance of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to govern understandable

One in three voters bought idea that Ireland is a hellhole in need of radical left policies

The professed desire of many Fine Gael TDs, and some in Fianna Fáil as well, to go into opposition rather than government has turned the normal order of politics on its head but is an understandable response to the mood of the electorate. Attempting to hold a seat as a government TD has become a hugely difficult undertaking.

This trend has been a feature of the past three elections. In 2011, Fianna Fáil suffered the biggest reverse in Irish political history, dropping from 80 seats to 20 while the opposition parties, Fine Gael and Labour, had their best-ever results. The obvious explanation was that Fianna Fáil was held responsible for the financial crisis and nobody was prepared to give the party any credit for pulling the country back from the brink of economic disaster.

In 2016, the boot was on the other foot. Labour suffered the worst electoral setback in its history and Fine Gael had a truly awful result. For the previous five years both parties had provided what was widely acknowledged as good and courageous government. Fianna Fáil, now in opposition, made a surprising recovery but, because of the inconclusive nature of the result, ended up providing the confidence-and-supply arrangement to ensure that the country had a stable government.

Vociferous attacks

Politically speaking this was clearly a bad move by Fianna Fáil. Sharing some responsibility for government saw the party going backwards again in 2020 while Fine Gael, the party that had actually been in government, had one of the worst results in its history. The big winners this time were Sinn Féin, the party most vociferous in its attacks on all aspects of government policy.


The paradox in all this is that between them Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Labour Party have over the past decade not simply led the country out of the crash but created the conditions for a level of prosperity never before experienced in Ireland. It brings to mind the remark made by one of the wiliest politicians of our era, Jean-Claude Juncker, who said: “We all know what to do, but we don’t know how to get re-elected once we have done it.” Mind you, he said that at the height of the financial crisis but the public mood in Ireland has clearly not evolved since then.

According to the opinion polls, ongoing complaints about the health service and the shortage of affordable housing were the big issues which determined how people voted in the election. The overwhelming dominance of these issues in the media coverage of the campaign convinced a sizeable portion of the electorate that nothing else mattered. By comparison, record employment levels and rising incomes were simply taken for granted.

It seems that complacency more than anger has landed us in a dangerous political impasse

There is no doubt that health and housing are really important issues where serious reform is required to cater for the needs of a growing population. However, the basic fact that any attempt to tackle these issues depends on a healthy and well-run economy did not appear to impinge on a sizeable proportion of the electorate.

The French writer Sylvain Tesson remarked a couple of years ago: “France is a paradise populated by people who believe they are in hell.” The relevance of the comment to Ireland is illustrated by the howls of outrage that greeted Leo Varadkar’s efforts to publicise the last United Nations Human Development Index, which shows Ireland as the third-best place in the world to live.

OECD report

The UN index is not the only positive outside assessment of where this country is currently at. A report from the OECD, the organisation of advanced western economies, published just over a week ago had the following to say about Ireland: “Ireland’s living standards remain high. Growth has been strong, despite bouts of volatility. The average real wage was on par with the OECD average in the mid-1990s, but now stands more than 15 per cent above. Furthermore, a highly redistributive tax and transfer system has contained income inequality in disposable incomes.”

The report went on: “The population also benefits from a high level of wellbeing across other dimensions. Life satisfaction is high, according with the strong economy as well as other features such as low levels of pollution, strong community engagement and high perceived personal security.”

Yet the election result indicates that about one-third of the electorate has bought into the notion that Ireland truly is a hellhole in need of a dose of the kind of radical left-wing policies that have ruined countries such as Venezuela. Obviously young people trying to buy a house in Dublin or paying exorbitant rents in the capital have a justified gripe with the system and can’t be faulted for opting for radical policies without worrying too much about the dire long-term consequences.

The real question is why so many people who are doing reasonably well as a result of our stable politics voted to throw out the baby with the bathwater. An ancillary question is why so many people didn’t bother to vote at all. The turnout, at just under 63 per cent, was one of the lowest in the history of the State and belies the notion of an angry electorate. It seems that complacency more than anger has landed us in a dangerous political impasse.