As we enter the last days of Election 2016, it is already clear that Irish politics is entering a new era no matter what voters decide next Friday. Not only has the campaign failed to ignite idealism and vision, but all the main parties seem to have badly misjudged the public mood. No matter who wins, all emerge as losers.
As different opinion polls show slight swings both up and down for each the four main parties, none of them has managed to make any decisive impact on voting intentions. So, it appears that many voters are left with a decision between the least worst option as they see it, possibly swayed more by fears than by hopes.
This election, then, marks a failure not just of different party campaigns but of the whole political system, unable to understand an electorate that wants a lot more from its politicians than they seem able to offer. In offering nothing more than a spate of confusing promises about taxes and subsidies, reliefs and abolishing charges, all the main parties are seriously misunderstanding the level of knowledge, the real concerns and the public values of most citizens.
It seems doubly ironic that just as we are involved in a public conversation about the ideals of 1916 and what kind of society its participants aspired to, our political parties have been so deaf to the deeper questions raised by the centenary celebrations. How revealing of the paucity of social vision of our political class!
If we can raise our heads from the narrow parochialism that has so marked this campaign, it is also very disturbing that climate change has been almost entirely neglected. As was made evident at the climate summit in Paris just two months ago, political leaders in other countries are at last awakening to the fact that his is the greatest challenge ever faced by humanity, risking the survival of our species if we don’t take decisive action. We seem to have no political leaders who have yet woken up to this reality.
In this sad situation, it is the Social Democrats who seem to have best engaged with the concerns of the electorate. Stephen Donnolly’s critique in the leaders’ debate at UL of the contradiction involved in cutting taxes while promising to improve public services, all in a context of what he twice described as ‘the gathering international storm clouds’, injected a rare note of honesty that was a breath of fresh air. It is not surprising that his is the only party that seemed to show some upward trend in the opinion polls though, of course, from a very low base.
The fact that the most supported group in many of the opinion polls, increasing their support during the campaign, were the independents is a searing indictment of the main parties. What it shows is the lack of any party capable of responding to the public mood, offering an honesty, a vision of a realisably better society, and an acknowledgement of the real difficulties involved.
What makes this all the more worrying is that there is a lot of evidence that young people are, for the first time in decades, re-engaging with politics. This is one legacy of the enthusiastic mobilisation generated by the marriage equality referendum.
It is also is an echo of a new phenomenon evident in other countries, from the large number of young people who joined the British Labour Party to vote for Jeremy Corbyn, through the youthful base of support for Podemos in Spain, to the growing base of youth support and engagement with the campaign of Bernie Sanders in the US.
A similar potential seems to be evident here and parties like the AAA-PBP, the Social Democrats and Sinn Féin are benefiting from it to an extent. Yet, we are very far from the wave of enthusiasm evident in the cases just mentioned. For young people awakening for the first time to the importance and potential of politics, it must be crushingly disillusioning to hear nothing more than jaded soundbites and incredible promises.
Election 2016 may go down as the first election to show just how unable is our political class to engage in a serious and adult dialogue with a mature electorate, to develop projects for Irish society that are visionary yet credible, and to engender a confidence that they can implement a project of real transformation.
For citizens are crying out for some serious transformation of a society that is badly broken, blind to the grave risks that threaten it, with high levels of inequality and low levels of trust, growing ever more violent, and with a quality of public services that is far beneath what we should aspire to. These are the real concerns of the Irish demos; Election 2016 shows that we urgently need a political force capable of responding to them with vision and credibility.