Voters set to endorse EU-IMF deal in election


Election to show that Irish people are scared of any great change to society – despite what we might tell Joe Duffy, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE

WHATEVER SCEPTICS may think, the election will make at least one huge difference.

Up until February 25th, there will have been no popular mandate for turning bank debt into public debt and imposing another four years of austerity. After Friday, unless all the polls are completely askew, there will be a popular mandate for the bank bailout, the EU-IMF deal and the cuts. Behind all the excitement of a historic changing of the guard, this is the real big event.

Come Saturday morning, like every morning after every election in the history of the State, right-of-centre establishment politics will be triumphant. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will have well over half the vote between them, 53 per cent according to yesterday’s Irish Timespoll. More strikingly, it is precisely the same as the 53 per cent that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil between them got in the European elections in June 2009.

Everything that has happened since then – the revelation of the abysmal depths of the banking crisis, the loss of economic sovereignty in the EU-IMF deal – has resulted in little more than a shift in support between the two right-of-centre parties that have dominated Irish politics since the foundation of the State. Leave aside the “vingince, by Jaysus!” factor in relation to Fianna Fáil, and there is nothing to trouble the seismologist. To adapt the fictitious Times (of London) headline invented by Claud Cockburn: Small Earthquake in Ireland, Not Many Dead.

This outcome will be greeted with relief by the European Central Bank and the fiscal hawks within the EU.

It will mean that all the rage and disgust, all the cursing and fist-shaking, will have amounted to nothing very much. Internally, of course, Fianna Fáil’s worst result to date (even the defeated and disarrayed republicans in 1923 got 27 per cent of the vote with many of their candidates in jail) will be a big deal. But externally, where the real power now lies, it will seem that nothing of great significance has happened.

The Irish will have a new government, surely more competent and energetic than the exhausted and demoralised one that rolled over when the IMF and the ECB came to town. The new boys will be rewarded with some promises of adjustments to interest rates that will allow them to claim victory. And they will get on with the job of nationalising private debt while attempting to bring the public deficit to below 3 per cent of GDP by 2014.

From the point of view of the ECB, the Irish will be even more onside than they are now. There was always a worry that Fianna Fáil and the Greens did not have public consent for the four-year plan they signed up to. These parties, after all, took just a quarter of the vote between them in 2009. That consent is now in the process of being secured. A few small concessions may be necessary but, after Friday, it will be essentially in the bag.

This is, surely, a remarkable state of affairs. Is there any other democracy where 55 per cent of the electorate would freely vote for a €15 billion austerity programme combined with a €100 billion transfer of wealth from citizens to banks? And let’s be clear – this vote is free. For all the limitations to Irish democracy, and all the unhappiness that people may feel about the alternatives, there is nothing to stop people using their votes to send a very different kind of message. Most people will freely choose not to do so.

That’s their right, but it is tough on those who don’t have a choice at all, particularly the hidden people in this election – children. I’ve written before about the Irish capacity for “unknown knowns”, things we know to be the case but choose not to be aware of. One of those big unknown knowns is that children will pay a heavily disproportionate price for our collective consent to the current policy.

Children in the poorest families are the most dependent on public services. The inevitable rise in poverty and the cutting of those services will hit them hard, at enormous long-term human and economic cost.

But that cost is tacitly written in to the deal. It is not even up for discussion in any substantial way. Fianna Fáil’s manifesto says nothing at all about poverty or children.

Fine Gael’s has 860 words on the burning issue of defence policy and 360 words on children, all of them decent but most of them vague.

Labour has good intentions about eliminating poverty but the main specific proposal for breaking the cycle of child poverty is the rolling out of an area-based strategy in “up to 10 of Ireland’s most disadvantaged communities, at a cost of up to €15 million” – very nice, very fuzzy and very, very modest.

The three biggest parties clearly decided that, whatever we tell Joe Duffy, we are actually a timid people, willing to put up with what’s happened to us and scared of any great change in the way our society works. The evidence is that they were right.

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