Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Sinn Féin's election: the dog that didn't bark?
The Irish groan and shout, lads,
Maybe because they're Celts,
They know they're up the spout, lads,
And so is everyone else.
Hurray! Hurray! Hurray!
Trouble is on the way.
Thank you, Noel: don't call us, we'll call you.

At Slugger and elsewhere (politics.ie, and now at Mick Fealty's other home, comment is free, for examples) there is some serious debate going on (provided one tiptoes round the usual exchange of ritual insults) about:
  • why Sinn Féin fell so far short of expectations in the Irish General Election
  • where they go from here.
The general consensus seems to blame the disaffection of the Republic's electorate with all things to do with the Black North, but identify Gerry Adams's performance in the also-rans debate as a special factor. Those pesky dogs, the critics and pundits, are snapping at his heels.

Malcolm feels that this debate has a long way to go.

It wasn't only SF that underperformed: all the radical parties suffered similarly. So that we all know what we're talking about, here's the meat:
FF 78 (-3);
FG 51 (+20, neatly restoring their position in 2002);
Labour 20 (-1, and still going nowhere);
PD 2 (-6, and effectively wiped out, except as an adjunct to FF);
Greens 6 (no change);
SF 4 (-1, after barking big, a very small bone);
and the odds-and-sods 5 (-9).
It isn't quite a two-party system, but it's getting pretty close.

Now, in hindsight, the outcome should not greatly surprise. The electors were asked if they liked prosperity, a housing boom, full employment, and, after a nanosecond of thought, decided "It's the economy, stupid".

Seán O’Faoláin, writing in 1969, noted:

time was when common words on every lip in every Irish pub were partition, the civil war, the republic, the gun. The vocab of the mid fifties and sixties was very different — the common market, planning, growth, rates, strikes, jobs, education opportunities or why this factory failed and that one flourished.

That’s why the RoI moved on, while too many in NI didn’t, and still haven't. Forty years on from O’Faoláin, the “vocab” of SF and anyone else trying to occupy the radical left, north or south, needs to adapt again.

He didn’t recognise it at the time, but Malcolm, sitting in the public gallery of the Dáil of the early ‘60s, might have observed O’Faoláin's change: the old men were still challenging each other about which side they and their fathers had fought in 1922: the younger sparks (and newspaper columnists) were rolling their eyes, and backing the Whitaker Plan.

That produced a step-change in the growth of the Irish economy, directly accountable to successfully attracting foreign investment and dismantling the protection racket that was the Irish economy. Exports, especially to the European market, rose; and the Irish
economy continued to grow throughout the 1970s (and began to free itself from dependency on Britain). Despite two oil crises in 1973 and 1979, high public spending kept the supply side of the economy buoyant, with the GDP growing at 4% a year. The cost was a structural deficit.

By the 1980s, though, the RoI was back in the mire. GDP growth fell back to 1.5% a year. Unemployment soared: by 1987 it reached nearly 17%, and emigration was back. Worse still, this emigration was mainly of the educated and talented. A consensus emerged between government, employers and unions: the new policy was tax-breaks to suck in the investment, expenditure on education and training, and industrial harmony. By 1992, some 37% of US investment into the European market was coming to Ireland. By 2003 unemployment was down to 1.5%, and 65% of the population were working.

So, in 2007, with Ireland one of the top-four burgeoning economies, the last thing on the popular agenda was “change”. But:

… the present pleasure,
By revolution lowering, does become
The opposite of itself.
And what then?

There should be an opportunity for any party which can cobble a convincing programme to cope with after-the-boom, when the appetite for “prosperity” is sated, when the economy turns. At that point, the place to be is outside the tent pissing in. Which party is capable of that posture?

On the other side of the fence, SF, the Greens and the Trots are the only parties who have been left off the roundabout of power all these years (though both SF and the Greens would love to be invited aboard). Therefore they have been the only parties credibly capable of arguing for “change”.

And that is why Malcolm's reading of Adams in the also-rans debate was somewhat different. Adams seemed not to have, or didn’t know, an economic policy. He vainly tried to shift the argument to social policy. (SF’s social policy looks somewhat threadbare too, but Malcolm leaves that thought aside.)

There is a case to be made for a new social programme: social inequality is growing; there is a two-tier health service; Ireland (pace the UN Development Programme) has the highest level of poverty in the Western world, behind only the US; a fifth to a quarter of the population are functionally illiterate; and Ireland is observably becoming a less tolerant society. (Malcolm, generous to a fault, omits corruption from that list.)

The opportunity is going to be there. Malcolm despairs that any party, least of all the factional, and provincial party that is SF, is presently capable of grasping it.

As in 1957, with Lemass, and 1987, when Haughey effectively picked up the policies of Garrett Fitzgerald, reform will probably be left to opportunist politicians. It will come slowly as the mainstream parties apply balm and healing salve, just enough for their own survival, declaring that it is all in "the national interest."

When Truman Capote complained about a bad review, André Gide replied with a proverb (now a cliché) from the Arabic: The dogs bark but the caravan moves on. It presently looks that the SF caravan, at least south of the border, is going nowhere.

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