Deliver or be Damned

British responses to the Irish election prove that there is nothing quite like the blindness that makes you unable to see what is right in front of you. Ireland is a major trading partner, the only country which shares a land border with Great Britain, and many Britons have recently had cause to remember they have Irish roots. Yet, the country is strangely invisible to British eyes. Voters in the 2016 referendum seemed to forget Northern Ireland; British commentators after Sinn Fein’s success in this election are wallowing in misunderstanding. The execrable Darren Grimes, whose only credentials are being employed by a secretive far right wing think tank and being forced to pay a £20,000 by the Electoral Commission for breaking the rules during the 2016 referendum, suggested that rent controls were to blame for high rental costs in Ireland. This, he suggested, led to Sinn Fein’s success. It is no wonder that the Irish separated themselves from the British: they have been subject to being patronised, ignored, and oppressed by people who could not be bothered to understand them, or indeed, Google what is going on.

The Irish election contains valuable lessons for any democratic society. Be in no doubt, Ireland is a better functioning democracy than many. In Britain, our electoral system creates a tyranny of the minority: most people didn’t vote Conservative, but thanks to the First Past the Post system, we have a Conservative government which will be immovable for the foreseeable future. Ireland relies on the Single Transferrable Vote. This makes the process of counting somewhat agonising: the vote took place on Saturday the 8th, and didn’t conclude until the evening of Monday the 10th. Nevertheless, the result may better reflect what the Irish think: the Fianna Fail and Fine Gael parties saw their support bleed away, the public put their faith in Sinn Fein and newer left-leaning formations like the Greens and Social Democrats. They mainly went for the newly packaged Sinn Fein, which racked up the most first preference votes by far. Their leader, Mary Lou McDonald, could very well be the next Taoiseach.

Why? The current Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, had done a masterful job on foreign policy: he had managed to wring concessions out of Boris Johnson and unite the entire European Union behind Ireland’s position. Unemployment, by all accounts, is relatively low. Ireland is, for the most part, on the other side of the financial crisis, and economic growth levels are reasonable. However, the lesson of Ireland is one that every government should take to heart: listen or be left behind. Deliver, or be damned.

It probably came as a surprise to British observers that the exit polls indicated that Brexit was a major concern for only 1% of Irish voters. Britain has been caught up in its own psychodramas for so long that it has failed to realise that these are uninteresting to nearly everyone else. The Irish were focused on were housing and health. Housing was the main issue; Ireland has some of the most expensive housing in Europe. This phenomena is by no means isolated to getting a roof over one’s head: I recall when I visited Ireland and was looking at the prices of products in Boots. It was then I became acquainted with the meaning of the phrase which I had heard while I was drinking my coffee: “Rip-off Ireland”. Combating this was a theme of campaigns on the left, including the Solidarity / People Before Profit alliance. Yes, the economy is growing; however, most people aren’t apparently feeling particularly good about it. The Fine Gael government has been in power for 9 years and been slow to respond; they were propped up after the indecisive 2016 election by Fianna Fail. Fianna Fail’s policy mix wasn’t substantially different to Fine Gael’s; they only exist as two separate parties because of their positions on the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 (Fine Gael was for it, Fianna Fail, against). To use an expression I first heard in Ireland, they were seen by modern voters as “two cheeks of the same arse”.

The government’s lack of listening was highlighted by Simon Coveney’s response after Fine Gael’s poor showing; most British readers will remember Mr. Coveney’s repeated and masterful appearances in the British media regarding Brexit. Upon facing his own voters, he apparently lost his touch: he expressed frustration at the voters’ lack of “patience”. Blaming the voters is never a good look for any politician. It smacks of Bertold Brecht’s famous poem, the Solution, which jokingly suggests the government should dissolve the people and elect another.

In a democracy, a government that neither listens nor delivers should be punished. Ireland is a functioning democracy. Fine Gael was knocked into third place. Fianna Fail only holds the most number of deputies in the Dáil because the Ceann Comhairle (the equivalent of the Speaker) is of that party. Otherwise, it would be tied with Sinn Fein. Forming a government will be a tricky business, but at least this is reflective of what people think and their priorities. It is now down to the politicians to listen and find a way to deliver, otherwise they will be punished again at the polls. Far from being an episode in which democracy has broken down or succumbed to the forces of populism, this is an example in which it has done what it should. Compare and contrast to Britain: the public was swayed by cheap slogans, and bound to an outdated electoral system, a government that didn’t listen and had not delivered on matters which were actually important – such as housing and health – was returned to power with a large majority.

I suspect much of the British commentariat will continue to be blind to what just hapened in Ireland; this is a pity. There is so much to learn from the Irish example, not least of which is how a proper voting system should work, and how a government that doesn’t deliver on the real priorities of the people should be treated. The Irish showed good political health in other ways: for example, immigration was very low on their list of concerns. Racism apparently has little truck in the Republic. Nothing is perfect: I was horrified by what happened to the party of the famous Irish trade unionist, “Big Jim” Larkin, Labour. They have been reduced to a ghost of their former selves with only 6 seats. Nevertheless, Ireland is in better shape than Britain is, more secure in its democracy and identity than the United Kingdom. Perhaps rather than ignoring them, we ought to pay close attention and learn.

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