MUGGED BY REALITY?
Political columnists and commentators have a new sport – guessing the date of the next General Election and which parties will make up the Government after that election.
This after the results of May’s local and European elections when the Coalition achieved the near impossible. The Government with the largest majority in the history of the state, which did nothing to bring about the economic collapse, for the most part performed credibly in repairing the damage, including seeing off the Troika successfully, was punished so severely in the ballot that its chances of recovery before its term runs out are slight. This regardless of any policy initiatives it may take.
The facts make stark reading, particularly for the junior Coalition partner, Labour. A protest vote was expected, but not on this scale. Its vote fell from 14.5% to 7.2% in the local elections, and from 13.9% to 5.3% in the European elections, both a far cry from the heady 19.4% in the 2011 general election. The party lost all three European seats. On this showing most of the party’s deputies seem set to lose their Dail seats.
Fine Gael also got a shock, dropping from 32.5% to 24% in the local elections and from 29.1% to 22.3% in the European vote, significantly below its 36% general election figure. The party is now neck and neck with a partially revived Fianna Fail. Like Labour, party strategists can take little comfort that some of the fall was probably due to protest by way of abstention (the turnout was just over 50% compared to the 70% in the 2011 General Election). Suddenly a second term in government looks far from certain.
The big winners were Sinn Fein, which continued the upward trends of the 2011 elections (General and Presidential) , doubling its vote in the local elections to 15.2% and increasing its share of the European poll from 11.2% to 19.5%, winning three of the eleven seats. This despite the arrest and lengthy questioning of Gerry Adams by Northern Ireland police just before election day. The other beneficiaries were a slew of Independents and minor parties, chiefly on the Left, who garnered 28% of the vote, three well entrenched personalities winning seats in Europe.
Some pundits have seen Sinn Fein’s continued success as marking a significant shift in the Irish political landscape. Certainly it has muscled its way onto the party scene and, with an efficient dedicated party structure at local level, now appears very much a fourth political force. Having creamed off much of Fianna Fail’s “green” vote in 2011, this time around it added the scalp of the 2011 sans culottes surge to Labour. Not being in office is an additional bonus.
How it, and the other parties, will fare in the looming General Election is another matter. Several pundits have pointed to the current volatility of the electorate, present since 2008 and showing no signs of diminishing. That 28% vote for others – chiefly of the left – reflects this, as do successive opinion polls showing high percentages rejecting both the traditional political parties and the arriviste Sinn Fein. Ominously, the figure for “others” – 15.45% in the 2011 election – lurched above 20% in opinion polls in January and has been rising since.
The message from the voters, however unrealistic, is clear: there has been enough austerity, and people have no more to give. An annual property tax in 2013, doubled in 2014, and the prospect of a savage charge for domestic water commencing in 2015, on top of previous impositions, were steps too far. The Troika is now a memory and the Government’s overhyping of the “achievement” of getting rid of it cut no ice. This year also, with the fig leaf excuse of the Troika’s diktat removed, the ineptitude of the government in mishandling a number of small but sensitive issues has been exposed, compounding its woes. The banana skins proliferated.
The post-mortems have begun. While Sinn Fein is preening, Labour is reeling. Its leader Eamon Gilmore, has quit and, as I write, the succession contest is under way. The irony is that, by any standard, apart from the foolish comments made by Gilmore prior to the 2011 election, Labour in government for the most part delivered for its constituency on its major commitments. Core welfare payments were protected almost in entirely, as was the minimum wage, while those on lower incomes were taken out of the Universal Social Charge net.
It was primarily the small hurdles that tripped Labour up, rendering it vulnerable to sustained attack from Sinn Fein and the left . Core welfare payments WERE protected, but the collateral damage from the alternative – a host of small stealth cuts brought in to achieve the necessary budgetary targets, and which affected disproportionately the old, sick and marginalised – proved too much. Arguably a further ten euros off unemployment and ( non means –tested) child benefit or higher excise charges could have avoided all this and proved more palatable politically.
Then, a small hurdle that became big. While the water charges remain an accident waiting to happen – particularly next year when they have to be paid – another accident, though well signposted in advance, has already occurred. The Discretionary Medical Card fiasco hung the Government out to dry – Labour in particular – and offered a perfect example of a government out of touch.
Irish medical cards are issued, not on medical need, but on a means tested basis, under legislation dating from 1970 – the Stone Age in terms of Irish social policy. They provide free medical care, are a gateway to certain other welfare benefits, and are much sought after. Roughly half the population have them – around two million – including those, healthy or not, on the dole or the state pension. The total in January 2013 included around 60,000 people(3% ) with discretionary medical cards, awarded case by case on the basis of individual need, and by definition, all with real medical needs.
As part of the cost cutting measures to tackle Ireland’s enormous health budget of €14 billion, this year’s budget targeted savings of €113 million from medical cards, through reviews of eligibility, including strict means testing of discretionary card holders. Thousands lost them, or were “ under review”, including many highly publicised distressing cases. The media had a field day. It became THE issue on the doorsteps. Government reaction was to parrot that legally its hands were tied. Voters were not impressed, and remain unimpressed in the most recent polls as the Government, in panic, has, post-election, suddenly found a way to reverse policy.
Such is the level of popular disenchantment with the main parties that what happens next is anybody’s guess. The new Labour leader may try to be more assertive, though the scope is limited. A government reshuffle is on the cards. There is speculation of more policy change. But time is running out. The summer beckons. After it, October’s budget. Few would wager on the Government now lasting until 2016. Even Benjamin Franklin’s rationale for hanging together is wearing thin. And then what? Political alliances thought unthinkable are now being contemplated. At least among journalists. For now.