A piece written for the December 2011 CrisisJam special The State We’re In.
Gene Kerrigan summed up the State We’re In in one word: screwed. He’s right, of course. We are screwed. It’s patently obvious that we’re screwed. The rapidity of Ireland’s descent into screwed-ity, and the depths to which we have plunged, is unparalleled in what the IMF calls the “advanced economies”. We are, let’s say, very seriously screwed.
One would think that, given the seriousness of this screwedness, this state we’re in; given the effects of this crisis on our public services, our welfare system, our low-paid workers, our emigrating thousands, our jobless thousands; given the despair, the hopelessness, the misery being suffered by so many people all over this country because of stupid decisions made and stupid policies pursued; one would think, given all of this and more, that the months since February’s election would have seen some serious political arguments being played out as the country, and the country’s politicians, grappled with the screwed up state we’re in.
But not much that has happened over the past nine months suggests the seriousness of the state we’re in is being taken seriously. Labour and Fine Gael have spent their bedding in period playing political dress-up, rather than articulating any kind of political position.
Labour’s election strategy was simple – they believed voters wanted a government focused on matters of national concern, a government with a majority overwhelming enough to allow them to focus thus, and so they early on ruled out any possibility of a Left alliance (with Roisín Shortall infamously saying that “It would not be in the interests of the country to have that kind of ragbag government” when asked if her party would form a coalition with Sinn Féin and the ULA). Whether Labour themselves believed stable government was in the national interest is probably irrelevant (they got what they wanted, and we are where we are) – but certainly their behaviour since coming to power would suggest questions of stability and the national interest were never uppermost in their minds. All that talk of stability, and their alignment with Fine Gael in the interests of creating it, was an electoral strategy calculated to maximise their vote, and nothing else.
The deeply self-righteous Fine Gael probably did believe that strong-stable-government-in-the-national-interest was needed – as long as it was led by them, obviously. On election night the party elite no doubt predicted an easy ride – sure, “tough decisions would have to be made”, but those decisions could always be blamed on Fianna Fáil. In the meantime, Fine Gael would go down in history as the leading partner in a coalition government that put politics to one side to focus on pulling Ireland out of crisis. The party’s claws would be hidden in plain sight – Labour cast as the party of cuts, and Fine Gael the good guys who kept income and corporation taxes low in the interest of jobsgrowthbusinessgoingforward.
Fine Gael is an intensely political party, but it masks its politics behind equally intense politicking. If the party thought it could get away with keeping that politicking behind closed doors – in the form of slowly strangling the Labour Party to death while putting on a public face of unity and responsible governance – above ideology and politics, because that’s so yesterday – the vocal opposition put up to it in the form of Sinn Féin (and the ULA and the Independents) has gone at least some way to putting paid to that, but not far enough. The media friendly, charismatic and well-briefed Pearse Doherty, and the increasingly credible and likeable Mary-Lou McDonald, with support from another young Sinn Féin TD, Peader Toibin, have presented a decent, though not sufficient, challenge to Fine Gael’s attempt to be a political party that is above politics. And while Richard Boyd Barrett and Joe Higgins have continued to act out the roles of Richard Boyd Barrett and Joe Higgins, ULA TD Clare Daly, after a stuttering start, has worked hard to get a handle on her brief, and is not easily dismissed as a monster raving loony leftist.
Outside the Dáil, Gay Mitchell’s disastrous presidential campaign and the triumph of Michael D. Higgins, which brought with it the threat that the Irish populace might, after all, have some sympathy for Labour politics – was dealt with in short and brutal order by Fine Gael on Budget day the following month.
The decision to hold the Budget over two days was undoubtedly a political calculation designed to entrench in the public mind the idea of Labour as this Government’s baddies and FG as its goodies. (It was also an example of the political cynicism that has been such a feature of this Government – as both parties sought to deflate any opposition to the measures they were announcing by dragging the arse out of it over 48 hours.) The net result of holding two Budgets (one for cuts, one for taxes; or the poor people’s budget and the rich people’s budget) was another petty political win for Fine Gael (goodies are good, baddies are bad – there’s a narrative fulcrum to spin your descriptions round, lads), and another lost opportunity to show them up for the right-wing ideologues that they are. The party’s role in the politics of choosing to hammer the low-paid and those on social welfare was, of course, skilfully occluded.
An instructive example of this skilful occlusion saw Michael Noonan casually heft Joan Burton into the flames on Prime Time last Wednesday night over cuts to disability allowances for 16-18 year olds. “Seemingly the Minister had been lobbied by groups who represent these individuals,” he said. “It was a judgement when the Minister was looking at a lot of difficult options.” Asked if he agreed with the decision he said: “Let me put it this way, I think it’s worth looking at again in the Social Welfare Bill.” Burton had been “lobbied”; the implication: Burton was weak, and rolled over at the first hint of pressure. “It was a judgement”: It was a bad judgement; Burton has bad judgement. Then the coup de grace: “I think it’s worth looking at again in the context of the Social Welfare Bill.” I won’t stab you in the back, Joan, I’ll stab you in the face and smile while I’m doing it. Oh, and look, everyone’s talking about what a witch you are, while very few are talking about the regressiveness of the 2% VAT increase. Oopsies.
Labour’s own flair for apolitical petty politicking was in evidence on Tonight With Vincent Browne last week, as Joe Costello found himself floundering in the face of an onslaught from Clare Daly on Labour’s abject failure to deliver on any of their promises on jobs. He decided to steady himself on the rock of the single cheapest political move of the 31st Dáil – the inclusion of legislation to restore the minimum wage in the same Social Welfare and Pensions Bill that increased the qualifying age for a State pension to 67 years in 2021 and to 68 in 2028. Turning to Daly like the rat that got the cream, Costello said: “When we restored the minimum wage, guess what happened? They voted against it… Clare went in…and she voted against it…isn’t that incredible. That was the first thing we did [to restore jobs]. There you are now. You voted against the minimum wage. Ask her, ask her, did she go into the lobbies and vote against the minimum wage? See. [Wounded. Exasperated. Glad he practiced in front of the mirror.] There we are.” Daly’s explanation that she had not, in fact, voted against the restoration of the minimum wage, but against the raising of the pension age, was almost drowned out by Costello’s repetition: “See, see? See? There we are.”
Since they came to office both Labour and Fine Gael have remained resolutely focused on the politics of the superficial. Fine Gael have done this deliberately – it is not quite the time to show their vicious pointy teeth, yet. (Though light has briefly been seen glinting off ‘gaffe prone’ Leo Varadkar’s incisors more than once this year.) Labour have been driven by a combination of expedience and desperation. They cannot articulate a political position, because all of their actions since taking power run exactly counter to the politics that should underlie any party with ‘labour’ in its name. Every Labour party member knows that what they’re doing is wrong, but every Labour party member has been told to suck it up and deny any wrongdoing. And so, like Joe Costello, they dodge, they evade, they distract; they waste their time trying to justify what they know is unjustifiable, instead of coming up with alternatives.
And we are in desperate need of politics. Politics in the sense of having a set of organising principles, ethics, and a particular vocabulary with which to describe and understand the world. But the political has been suffocated very effectively by Fine Gael, with the passive support of a foolish and power-hungry Labour Party. Had Labour not ruled out a ‘ragbag’ coalition of Left parties before the election, Fine Gael could have faced a genuine opposition that would have forced them to articulate, out loud, the ideology that drives the party. But Labour chose not to do that, and so Fine Gael can pass the months playing petty politics: bashing Fianna Fáil and sneeringly characterising Sinn Féin and the ULA as mad ideologues, without ever really having to lay their own ideological cards down face up. And so, and so, the party can pass themselves off as the party of pragmatism; above politics and all the inefficient debate it demands; freed from the tedious business of having to defend their position (if you’re explaining, you’re losing, after all); just doing what they have to do to get the country out of the hole it’s in. Sinn Féin, the ULA and a few of the Independents are doing the best they can to bring politics into the Dáil and into public consciousness, but it’s not enough. We need more. Otherwise the next four years will see the destruction of the Public while Enda Kenny gets away with doing nothing but snarking at Fianna Fáil, wandering around Carrauntoohil, and delivering speeches in a Thunderbird stylee. We deserve, I think, better.