Una Mullally: Perhaps we are all a bunch of socialists after all
The election campaign suggests people value a booming society over a booming economy
Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald launching her party’s general election manifesto. Photograph: Alan Betson
It’s not just the general election campaign that has been fascinating, but also the changes in Irish society and public sentiment that the campaign reflects. If we examine the latest polls showing yet another drop in Fine Gael’s support and yet another rise in Sinn Féin’s support “in the round”, to borrow a phrase from Leo Varadkar, it’s not just about Sinn Féin. Their popularity is obvious, but this is also about a broader shift. The Sinn Féin surge is a surge within a surge, and that broader surge is to the left.
While how we categorise and describe the traditional binaries of left- and right-wing politics have changed, what the Irish electorate seems to be on the cusp of demanding is a particular type of change that chimes more with left-wing ideas and ideals than the centre-right floundering it has experienced from Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. We may not see that straight away in the make-up of the next government, but it’s happening.
One of the most telling aspects of the leaders’ debate on RTÉ was the emphatic applause that greeted Richard Boyd Barrett’s calm and astute commentary on the flaws and inequities in Irish society. The pause between that clapping almost felt like Ireland’s collective brain coming to the conclusion that perhaps we’re all a bunch of socialists after all.
Irish society can also sometimes have an issue with delayed responses. Maybe we ruminate too much. Could it be that this election is actually a recession-era echo? The crash was the seismic moment in many of our lives. What’s very clear now is that a lot of people are dissatisfied with, and perhaps even morally opposed to, how its aftermath was dealt with.
If people are confused about voters swinging from Fine Gael to Sinn Féin, for example, you have to understand that tribalism in Irish politics is no longer a steadfast affiliation. You have to understand that people are voting on issues. You have to understand that a lot of people think they’ve given Fine Gael a chance and now want something different because their quality of life – or their perception of it – has worsened. You have to understand that people don’t fear radical change when they feel like they’ve nothing to lose. You have to understand how radical social change over the past five years was born out of empathic, collective, grass-roots action that gave people a sense of power, solidarity and accomplishment. So why not more of that?
So what happens next? While many voters are now looking to Sinn Féin to provide alternative solutions, strategically, it might be a mistake for them to enter government this time around. The party has always been publicly urgent but privately patient. It would probably benefit Sinn Féin in the long term to allow a weak and unpopular centrist government to form and falter, and for Sinn Féin to then consolidate their growing support. That may not be the best thing for the country right now, but it could well be a strategy they favour. Cynical? Party politics? Never! In all seriousness, though, there is a big difference between momentum and a new base, and it’s the latter the party will need to maintain and develop in the election’s aftermath. The tyres of Sinn Féin’s apparent electoral popularity will need to be kicked if they’re to keep driving forward, and given the recent lessons smaller parties have learned the hard way in government, why would Sinn Féin position themselves as a minority party to be punished by the electorate when promises aren’t fulfilled, as Labour and the Greens experienced?
Back to the people. Many people I know are on edge. They’re stressed. They’re burnt out. They’re living month to month. Their choices around how and where they want to live have evaporated. They work hard, try their best, yet their quality of life doesn’t match their efforts. There is something painful and humiliating about doing everything “right” – studying hard, going to college, jumping through job interview hoops, hustling for work – and then ending up struggling with the factors that curtail one’s quality of life, not to mention the sense of injustice many feel in response to others in society hurting even more. And they’re also excited to vote, energised by an election campaign that has exposed an under-represented sentiment in Irish society.
Story of solidarity
This is a story about the potential base Fine Gael left behind, the people who now reconfigure what were once “normal” life stages – moving out of home, starting a family, buying a house – because of how society has been moulded over the past decade. It’s also a story of solidarity, of people valuing a booming society over a booming economy. If this analysis of Irish society wasn’t at least partly true, the voters Fine Gael naturally appeals to wouldn’t be turning their backs on the party. Know your audience. Read the room. The fact that Fine Gael hasn’t done that during this campaign compounds the sense that they are in fact detached and out of touch, perhaps even more so than initially suspected, and that their record in government is seen very differently by those who now won’t be voting for them.
So you have to understand that Fine Gael’s “future to look forward to” does not feel like a shared vista. You have to understand the growing critiques of neoliberalism. You have to understand that people are politically literate. And you absolutely have to understand the impact of the housing crisis. It has brought us horror stories about homelessness, and more broadly, the stress, desperation, and vulnerability caused by the rental crisis. Fine Gael used to be able to rely on the reality of “struggling” not touching their base. Now it does. And whose fault is that?