1 December 2014 Edition
Next election could be a game changer
The continued rise of Sinn Féin, Independents and smaller parties highlights a hunger for change and an openness to alternatives
THE NEXT general election in the South could be a game changer. It could be the most significant election in the history of the state since 1933.
The shape of the Southern Irish party political system was well-established from 1923. Pro-Treaty and anti-Treaty factions of the independence movement dominated a two-and-a-half party system.
But the 1933 election saw Fianna Fáil consolidate their hold on political power – a hold that would last for the next 60 years.
Throughout almost all of that period, 80% of voters opted for Centre Right Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael governments.
Catholic nationalism may have been supplanted by cosmopolitan liberalism during the 1990s but social and economic policy remained firmly within the Christian democratic tradition.
Smaller left of centre parties – Labour, Clan na Poblachta or the Workers’ Party/Democratic Left – were faced with a difficult choice.
They could play the short game, trading limited policy influence for electoral decline as junior partners in a right-wing government, or they could play the long game, deferring participation in Government until their political and electoral strength was greater.
In each case the Left played it short. The principal beneficiaries were Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael while the two-and-a-half party political system remained intact.
Only twice in the history of the state did it look like this cosy state of affairs may be disrupted. In 1948, Clann na Poblachta emerged to challenge Fianna Fáil hegemony. In 2011, Labour looked set to break free of its half-party status.
Yet both opportunities were lost as Seán MacBride and then Eamon Gilmore opted for the sprint rather than the marathon only to realise they didn’t have the strength to make it to the finish line.
If Clann na Poblachta or Labour had made better choices they could have challenged the dominance of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. They could have forced a realignment of Southern Irish party politics. They could have laid the ground for a Centre Left government.
But instead they chose to play it short and our Centre Right party political system returned to business as usual.
• Growing momentum for new politics: The SNP in Scotland, Syriza in Greece and Podemos (“We can”) in Spain
And so to the upcoming general election. The portents of change are everywhere.
The slow electoral demise of the Centre Right that started in the early 1990s has accelerated since the financial collapse in 2008. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael now command less than 50% of the electorate.
The continued rise of Sinn Féin, Independents and smaller parties highlights a hunger for change and an openness to alternatives. The mass mobilisations against the water charges show a new engagement with politics.
The Centre Right policy consensus that has dominated the political mainstream for so long no longer has the confidence of the majority of the electorate.
This is not just a Southern Irish phenomenon. The rise of the SNP in Scotland, Syriza in Greece and Podemos (“We can”) in Spain all point to a crisis of social and economic liberalism and a growing momentum for a new politics that places social justice at the heart of economic policy.
Our party political system has run its course. It is ripe for change. There has never been a better time to force a realignment along Left/Right lines. There has never been a better time to break the Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael grip on power.
A party that offers a real alternative to the corrupt and incompetent politics of the Centre Right may end up in power sooner than it thinks – if it convinces the voters that it means what it says, that it keeps its word, and that the alternative it offers is radical, credible and achievable.
The next general election could indeed be a game changer – but that will depend in large part on the words and actions of those of us who believe we have something different to offer.