During last May’s local election count, I interviewed Fianna Fail TD Eamon O Cuiv for the Connacht Tribune. In the midst of a discussion about how the count was going, he told me that there was “no such thing as right and left” in Irish politics.
It struck me as a very odd comment.
In virtually any other country in the world, there is a clear distinction between right wing parties (who favour big business and an open market economy) and those on the left (who feel that the poor should never be penalised for the wrong-doings of the rich).
Maggie Thatcher, for instance, was right wing. She sold off council houses, privatised as much as she could, and closed down the mines. She attacked the working class. Whereas the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, where I volunteered for three months, were idealistic left-wingers (at least in their early days) after overthrowing a right-wing dictatorship.
O Cuiv, of course, is steeped in Irish political history. His grandfather, Eamon De Valera, was Taoiseach three times and President of Ireland. Fianna Fail is in his blood.
People like him don’t like to be reminded that Ireland has effectively been run by centre-right parties since its foundation. If you took the Civil War out of the equation, can anyone really distinguish between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael?
If they were in Britain, both parties would be labelled as “Conservative”. It has never been a radical move by voters to replace one with the other. Instead, it has always boiled down to family loyalties and friendships. The parish pump has been the real driving force in Irish politics.
The danger is that a certain perception of the Irish political landscape can then somehow be deemed the one and only “reality”. If all the major parties support the ‘bailout’, you can be labelled a lunatic if you question whether there is another way.
The dominant narrative allows people to ridicule those who believe it is absolutely appalling that the low paid should have to bail out unsecured bondholders.
It allows an RTE newsreader to label idealistic protesters as “idiots” live on air.
It allows elements of the media to completely ignore the anger that is so prevalent across the country in the wake of seven years of austerity.
Images of Gardai confronting Irish Water protesters don't make the national airwaves, but those who do protest are labelled as the "sinister fringe".
An academic even claimed recently that people were only protesting over the Irish Water charges because things were getting better. He called it a “revolution of rising expectations”.
When the Troika came to Dublin in 2010, I was working as a volunteer in Central America. Canadians and Germans sympathised with me. Some wondered why there was not a greater spirit of rebellion among the Irish. I could not tell them why people back home were so down, so accepting of the imposition of austerity on ordinary people who had nothing to do with the “crisis” which followed the property crash.
People who never bought a second house or SUV were suddenly lumped with the Universal Social Charge, pay cuts, and the Local Property Tax, for no other reason than to bail out a tiny elite who had been consumed by greed during the Celtic Tiger era.
In 2011, support for the Fianna Fail-led Government imploded, but voters only replaced them with another centre-right coalition. Can anyone really claim that Government policies have changed since the night of the infamous bank guarantee in 2008?
It has been a horrible few years for the Irish, but now there are huge hints of change in the air.
In last year’s European Elections the people of the West, Midlands, and North West voted for two Independents, one Sinn Fein MEP, and one Fine Gael. The most conservative constituency in the country, supposedly, returned three protest (or left wing) candidates out of four – and only one from the ‘traditional’ parties (FF, FG, and Labour).
A protest against Irish Water drew 100,000 people onto the streets of Dublin a few months ago. That would have been unthinkable half a decade ago. These were ordinary people, fed up with austerity, fed up with quangos, and the ‘bonus culture’ and sense of entitlement of those who rise to the top of these kinds of organisations.
For many people, the obscene bonuses and the sight of water meters being installed in their estates came as a final straw.
All around Europe this week, there were stark warnings from right wing politicians and mainstream media that the Eurozone was about to be plunged into turmoil if the left-wing party, Syriza, won the Greek general election.
Fair play to the people of Greece. They have had enough of austerity, unemployment, and job cuts. They are tired of paying a price for the sins of others. And they were not afraid to defy the stark warnings in Sunday’s elections.
Syriza have pledged to renegotiate the country’s €240 billion bailouts, just as businesses regularly restructure their debts. Greece’s debt is equivalent to 175% of its GDP and the Greeks, like the Irish, need some hope after years of cuts.
Of course, Syriza’s victory has sent “shockwaves” through the markets, with speculation that Greece will default and have to leave the Eurozone.
But, amid all the stark warnings, the Greek people still went out and voted for the hard left.
While our hospitals remain overcrowded, while homelessness continues to be a huge problem, and the jobless rate is disguised through JobBridge and community employment schemes, the rise of Syriza should provide a stark lesson to Enda Kenny and company in the Irish Government.
In the second half of last year, the Irish Water demonstrations all over the country showed that people here are prepared to get out and protest – in one of the least radical countries in Europe.
It will be interesting to see what happens in Greece now and whether the stark predictions of a Eurozone exit will materialise.
By choosing to vote for Syriza, Greek voters have dared to question the perceived “reality” in which it is perfectly acceptable for ordinary people to bail out bankers and bondholders.
The people have spoken. All across Europe, in Spain, Ireland, and Portugal, change is in the air.
And perhaps people here are beginning to realise that replacing FF with FG, or vice-versa, is not the only answer come election time.
Nobody wants to see a host of Independents bring instability to the Dail. But, equally, voters want to express their anger at the establishment parties after putting up with austerity for so long.
The next year or two could be very exciting indeed in Irish politics as a “wind of change” brings an end, finally, to the politics of the Civil War. It has only taken us just under a century to fall in line with the rest of the world!