A PEOPLE VOTES 1603 LXXXVI

A PEOPLE VOTES

Some very preliminary and personal thoughts on the Election (rather than on the prospects for the next Government).

The Election has certainly shaken up things though the evidence was all there in the polls, particularly the maverick one late on which caused panic in Fine Gael. There WAS no late surge, as many, me included, had thought likely. Both Sean Donnelly, with a proven track record of forecasting, and Ivan Yates, who was after all in a previous life a bookie, got it almost right on the day before the vote:

Donnelly ( accurate in previous elections) gave FG 49 FF 41 LABOUR 8 SF 22 ALL OTHERS 37. Yates gave FG 51 FF 39 LAB 7 SF 29 AAA/PBP 6 SD 3 RENUA 1 ALL OTHERS 22.

I doubt if the results are quite as earth –shattering as some of the more excited commentators are claiming. There has certainly been fragmentation of the old system, with support for the two major parties less than 50% this time around. Arguably, as, inter alia Gene Kerrigan has written, this election was the Second Crash Election with the legacy issues post 2008 casting a comprehensive shadow across the government’s record. Just as Fianna Fail were punished in 2011 for being deemed responsible for the mess,  this time around the Coalition got it in the neck for the residual austerities required by the rescue. Yet Fianna Fail did manage a significant bounce back so whether the two main parties will continue to languish at below 50% in future elections remains to be seen.

Sinn Fein continues its march, consolidating its working class support , including – according to analysts – significant numbers of blue collar unemployed males. Its share of the vote increased from 9.9% to 13.8%, its seats from 14 to 23 (and in a smaller house) . Interestingly, however, its 13.8% was roughly similar to its candidate’s share in the 2011 Presidential election and actually less than the 15.2% the party got in the 2014 local elections. It is no longer making inroads into Fianna Fail’s support.  The next election (whenever) will show whether its rise will continue or whether it has peaked at a certain level. As election day approached, successive opinion polls gave it less and less support.  What is indisputable  is that it has “arrived” as a major force in politics.

Renua bombed – which was fairly predictable –  while the Social Democrats received 64,000 votes and got all their three highly impressive candidates elected , together with several good shows elsewhere. They could be a force in future or alternatively go the way of a number of small parties. All three of their T.D.s are cabinet material. The Independents are either favourite –son style people  out for their constituents alone, or some with the potential to offer something nationally. It will be interesting to see how they – and the Social Democrats –  feature in the negotiating process over the next government.

The hard left – AAA/PBP – got an identifiable six seats with just under 4% of the vote – the same number as Labour ( excluding Penrose) though with far less votes -84,000 as against 140,898. The not-so-hard left got four seats with 31,365 votes, 1.5% of the total. Collectively hardly  the new dawn of a socialist Ireland. Targeted seats, high profile candidates and extremely good vote management and organisation brought its rewards. The water charge issue galvanised a particular segment of the urban working class. Whether this can be sustained and built upon in the long term only time will tell.

None of the commentators appear to have focussed on Voter turnout which, last week, at 65% nationally, was down by 5% compared to 2011. The low poll (the total voting was 85,000 less than 2011)  could have affected support for the Government, particularly Fine Gael.  Note that  Fine Gael’s last disastrous showing , in 2002, when they actually slumped to 24.5% of the first preferences – less than last week – coincided with the lowest national poll – 62.7% – at least since the War and probably since the 1920s. In 1987, also after a period in an austerity driven government, Fine Gael’s support fell from 37.3% to 27.1%. Significantly, in that election,  the new party – the PDs – garnered 12% of the vote while support for Fianna Fail was largely unchanged.

Labour lost out by small margins in a number of constituencies and could regain some of them next time around. Its core vote has hovered around 10-11% since the mid- 70s (1992 and 2011 were aberrations), and actually its performance in 1987, significantly coming out of the same government of austerity, was worse than last week, with only 6.4% of the vote. Plus ca change? Back in the Sixties, when Labour had somewhat higher support ( remember Brendan Corish in 1969, when Labour was on a socialist kick, and got 17% – “ Let’s build the New Republic”) it had a monopoly of support on the left. It has now significant opposition there. The issue of Trade Union support for Labour looks like becoming a live one –flagged already by Ogle, Coppinger and others.

It is often overlooked that , since the 60’s, and the Lemass era, when the country started to grow and experience modest prosperity, the electorate has almost always voted to “throw the bums out” by voting out the incumbent government next time around. The exceptions were Bertie’s three-in-a-row. Haughey “lost” in 1989 and clung on by going into coalition, and Albert was propped up by Labour in 1992 – for which Labour paid a price five years later. After five years of at best rather lack-lustre austerity government, however necessary, and having been gifted  the 2011 election , there was bound to be a voter reaction. Woe betide a government that frustrates the public’s expectations.

Apart from the “Recovery? – What Recovery?” sentiment, what undoubtedly helped undermine Fine Gael was that it lost the Emperor’s suit of clothes image of being more upright and upstanding than Fianna Fail. The “minor” matter of the McNulty appointment to the board of IMMA did incalculable damage to that image amid charges of cronyism. Albert’s remark that it was the small hurdles that brought you down comes to mind. Similarly Enda’s remark that the weekly cost of paying the water charges was about half a pint of beer was insensitive; it factors into 26 pints in a year which, to someone on  a low income, is significant. The whole Irish Water fiasco, plus the Medical Cards and health cuts also smacked of insensitivity.

Furthermore, having preached stability continuity and recovery, Fine Gael were seen, half way through the campaign, as panicking and shifting on taxation policy over its plan to abolish the USC. Coming on top of the “fiscal space” confusion this fatally undermined its claim to be the best party to manage the economy. However it was dressed up  the plan rang hollow, given the central importance of the charge in the Government’s finances. That Sinn Fein  should have pointed this out served to rub salt into the wound.

As I write, Irish Water is still the disaster that continues to give. The inelegant pavane we are hearing today around the issue of charges  and paying for them doesn’t inspire much confidence all round.  The arguments for a single authority appear to me unanswerable. There is one – though I don’t agree with the quango form with which we have been saddled. Let’s see what we can do with it, reforming or restructuring as necessary. But on the issue of charges it would appear that, one way or another, the people have spoken.

2/3

 

 

 

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MUGGED BY REALITY ? 1602 LXXXIV

MUGGED BY REALITY ?

“ A statesman must wait until he hears the steps of God sounding through events, then leap up and grasp the hem of his garment.”   “A government must not waiver once it has chosen its course. It must not look to the left or right but go forward.” Two quotes from  Bismarck on which Angela Merkel must surely have reflected during recent months. The leader of Europe’s most populous country, its strongest economy and dominant  political force,  Europe’s  longest serving Head of Government, is facing the biggest political challenge of her career.

Her announcement in early September that Germany would accept all refugees from Syria seemed the right thing to do. Indeed she did not have much choice. The plight of migrants trying to get to Europe had dominated the media for months following the drowning of hundreds in the Mediterranean . Public interest and sympathy increased dramatically as the flow turned into a tide and as a new route in the eastern Mediterranean via Turkey and Greece became the preferred one. There was public horror and demand for action after the poignant images of  a drowned toddler washed up  on a Greek shore appeared. Throughout Europe thousands offered to help by materially assisting refugees, even offering to accommodate them in their own homes.

Europe’s official response had been a number of hand-wringing EU summits, long on rhetoric, short on solutions. Many EU countries were indifferent or signed up to token responses at best. Ireland at least joined a number of countries in sending a ship to aid  in rescue operations off the Libyan coast and has committed, to date, to taking 4,000 refugees.

The increasing flow of migrants seeking to enter Europe was given impetus and augmented by the surge of refugees fleeing the worsening conflict in Syria. With no solution in sight, with ISIS controlling more and more of the country and with several million refugees already in neighbouring countries, the attraction of Europe, where some already had relatives, was obvious. The shorter and ostensibly safer sea route via Turkey beckoned and there was no shortage of  people traffickers to facilitate.

So they came, in a human tide of up to ten thousand a day,  arriving in Greece and pushing on through the Balkans towards more prosperous Northern Europe, the numbers supplemented by refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan,  Eritrea and elsewhere.  Media coverage was frenzied, with references to a flow of biblical proportions and to the greatest mass migration into Europe since World War Two. The magnet was Germany, Europe’s prosperous economic powerhouse, with a history of taking in refugees since the Nineties and which, given its demographics, needed to import labour.

Merkel’s announcement  that there was no upper limit on the numbers with a right to asylum did little more than paraphrase refugee rights under the 1951 Refugee Convention but signalled that  Germany would welcome those from Syria trekking north.  The net effect was to intensify the flow. It was after all an opportunity  for a future and a new life for anyone who could make it. Europe’s border controls, such as they were, buckled and were overwhelmed . The  EU regulation that refugees should be tethered to the first country they entered collapsed. As the reaction began, with Hungary the first EU state to break ranks and erect border fences, and others following, the push was on  to enter before the door  slammed shut.

Five months later the issue has morphed into one with the potential to derail or re-orient  the direction of the EU, bringing down Merkel in the process. In a domino effect, border controls are being reintroduced in a number of countries. Roughly a million refugees arrived in 2015 in Germany and Sweden alone, the other country to operate an open door policy. Winter has reduced but by no means stopped the refugee flow, with,  as I write, new arrivals in Germany running at 3,000 per day.

Merkel has stuck to her guns, but is now on the defensive, under mounting political pressure from her own party, the opposition and the German states, who,  with resources already strained to the limit,  fear being overwhelmed by a new  influx.  Sweden is no better. The right to asylum looks increasingly like an albatross for both countries but one they cannot shrug off.  Placebo measures to enforce asylum provisions strictly,  with rapid turn around and deportation of  those  deemed not political refugees seem unlikely to have much practical effect.  Repeated calls for EU solidarity and more burden sharing,  have so far fallen on deaf ears.

It’s not simply about numbers, whatever the short term pressure on resources.  A Europe of five hundred million could easily absorb last year’s million, and the anticipated  one and a half million plus in 2016. Certainly a reduced and more orderly flow would help but the simple fact is that public enthusiasm and sympathy  for the refugees has been waning across Europe.

There are reasons for this. The wealthier regimes in the Middle East are seen as doing nothing to help ( Saudi Arabia offered to build 200 mosques in Germany!), and  adding to the problem by waging war by proxy in Syria. Many of the arrivals are perceived not as genuine refugees  but rather as economic migrants seizing the opportunity to enter Europe.  A disproportionate number of the arrivals appear to be young single men.  European right wing and populist parties have cashed in,  playing up the cultural and religious differences of the newcomers and suggesting that European democratic and liberal values are under threat.

Public fears were given impetus after the November terror attacks in Paris with the revelation that several of the attackers could have been recent arrivals from Syria, in fulfilment of an ISIS threat to infiltrate terrorists among the refugees. This was  hardly totally surprising -most people recognise that it is impossible to guard against  every  fanatic  – but, with European border controls seen as down or ineffective, with European tourists being targeted by suicide attackers elsewhere ( most recently in Istanbul) , the Paris massacre helped stoke fears and focussed suspicion on migrants as a whole.

Then came New Year’s Eve, with reports of sexual harassment of women by North African men in Cologne and several other German cities, attacks which police initially covered up fearing a racist backlash. The harassment attacks were explicable but not excusable. Take a large group of  young men, newly arrived in Germany,  linguistically and culturally different, in particular in  their attitudes  towards women, and tolerated, but not necessarily welcomed  with open arms, in their new host country.  Place them as outsiders and onlookers at New Year festivities where local men and women are celebrating and you have a  recipe for disorder. So it proved, sparking outrage not confined to feminist groups. Subsequent foolish suggestions that  European women should take precautions in dress in their home countries and avoid going out alone did not help.

As of now Merkel has lost the battle for public opinion. With refugees continuing to arrive, with the associated costs of catering for them rising, with European partners indifferent, there is no easy solution. God’s footsteps cannot be heard. Watch this space.

20/01/16

 

 

 

 

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