WHERE ARE WE AT?
President-elect Trump. The BREXIT vote….
The most recent poll results in Austria and Italy have provided further evidence, if any more were needed, of the anti-establishment wind blowing throughout a number of the western democracies. It’s been described variously as xenophobic, racist, fascist, anti- austerity, anti-liberal, anti-globalisation, anti-EU, populist, blue collar, even nationalistic, or combinations of some or all of these. It’s blown with varying degrees of intensity across Europe and the USA, the BREXIT vote, Trump’s victory and the Italian Referendum clearly the highlights.
But is the glass half empty or is it half full? The mood of rejection is far from universal. Hilary after all won the popular vote, the Brexit success was a narrow one, the right wing candidate DIDN’T make it in Austria, it appears unlikely that Le Pen will win out in France and there seems no realistic alternative to Angela Merkel in Germany. Was that Italian result actually such a victory for the Left and the Five Star Movement, or was it rather that the radical constitutional changes proposed by Renzi were too much for the middle of the road Italian voter?
In Europe what is clear is that the particular dominant political and economic orthodoxy, which has been in the ascendant since the Cold War era, has taken a hammering. The juggernaut, which has delivered phrases like “the European Project,” espousing simultaneously a liberal social agenda in tandem with centre-right economic and fiscal policies, and contemptuously dismissing, ignoring or condemning opposition and criticism has been halted. Writing on BREXIT, the British novelist Zadie Smith summed it up succinctly: “this vote offered up the rare prize of causing a chaotic rupture in a system that more usually steamrolls all in its path.” The jury is still very much out on whether this is merely a temporary glitch or something more fundamental. Certainly the ruling elites have been given pause for thought, in Ireland as elsewhere, though in our case it took some time to show.
Ireland has not been immune. Indeed it would be surprising were we to be unaffected, given the severity of the post 2008 recession here. The last two elections have shown significant rejection of the traditionally dominant establishment political parties, which most recently garnered only half the votes cast, with an inchoate and splintered opposition of left-wingers and independents filling the void. As against this, despite having this century twice initially rejected EU treaties over aspects we didn’t like, the Irish electorate again made clear in the 2012 vote on the European Fiscal Compact that when the chips were down hardnosed realism would triumph.
On racism and xenophobia, there has been remarkably little evidence here of anti-immigrant feeling and certainly no development of any right wing nationalist party a la those in Scandinavia and France. There are some obvious explanatory factors. While the 2011 census showed over 12% of the population to be foreign born, it remains remarkably homogenous, with over 94 % white European, and 90% Christian (“No Religion” carded at 7.63%). Asians account for 1.9%, blacks for 1.4% and Muslims make up about 1%. Polish nationals (122,585) are now the largest foreign born group, supplanting the British (112,259) and followed by Lithuanians, Latvians and Romanians, reflecting the 2004 EU Enlargement.
With regard to non-EU immigration, being an offshore island behind an offshore island obviously helped, as did the 2004 referendum, carried by a whopping 79%, which ended the automatic right to citizenship to anyone born on the island. This to combat blatant abuse, together with a general EU –wide tightening of entry controls, had the side effect of curbing the rate of third country immigration here. Plus it’s simply not easy for economic migrants to get to Ireland. With numbers relatively few, the lack of a critical mass of non-Europeans has certainly been a factor in inhibiting the development of racist politics here.
Now, a curious contrast between Ireland and Britain. Much has been made of blue collar resentment in Britain over the competition for jobs from post -2004 immigrants from the new EU member states, especially Poles. There follow the latest census figures for migrants into Britain and Ireland (in brackets): Poles 703,050 (122,585), Lithuanians 116,861 (36,683), Latvians 66,046 (20,593), Romanians 89,402 (17,304) Hungarians 56,166 (7413), Czechs 41,605 (5494), Slovaks 67,781 (10,695), and Bulgarians 51,875 (1,763). It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that Ireland, with one fifteenth Britain’s population, has taken proportionately far more EU migrants than Britain, without any obvious resentment from the natives. And, a further point, concerning Britain only; since the 1960’s Britain has taken, and absorbed with minimal friction, several million immigrants from the Sub-Continent, Asia and Africa. (Post-imperial guilt?) So why the sudden mood swing in Britain now? (I still don’t know the answer to that one.)
Why are the East Europeans who have come to Ireland in impressive numbers to work not resented here? There are PhDs to be earned on this but some suggestions. We Irish, never having had anything like full employment until recently, don’t feel we have “lost out” to or threatened by the new arrivals. Factor in also that, with our tradition of emigration, we see nothing untoward in Poles and other Central Europeans arriving seeking work, people who, in large measure share our western, mainly Catholic, culture. And, because we had no or few illusions we do not share the alienation and frustration of the blue collar and lower middle class British and Americans that many of their expectations (material comforts, rising standards of living, college prospects for their kids) remain stalled or unrealisable. We don’t have any lost or migrated traditional industries to mourn or brood over, our experience of EU membership has been overwhelmingly positive – at least until recently -and indeed we can rejoice at the new and cutting edge hi-tech investment we are attracting.
There are limits, however, to what the Irish will put up with. Much of the post 2008 austerity was endured, stoically, as necessary, despite a public perception that we were bullied by the European Central Bank to save German bondholders. The tipping point proved to be the Irish Water debacle, seen as an attempt by the elite to raid further the pockets of the public, with swathes of the Irish middle class embracing populist calls not to pay. In rapid order there followed this year’s stalemated general election and the emergence of a fragile, timid and impotent government. A country “ungovernable and ungoverned,” as friends have remarked. Quite where we go next is unclear. There are some siren voices suggesting we follow Britain out. Unthinkable? Yes, but sands can shift – and we are now “Net Contributors” – paying annually for our EU membership.
If there is a lesson to be drawn from the populist shift, whether to left or right, it is that the elites in the USA and Europe alike are seriously disconnected from the grassroots. They have talked down or at the general public, displaying hubris, insensitivity and dogmatic certainty in approach. Trump – and the Brexiteers – sensed and capitalised on the discontent this generated. Perhaps the Vox Pop should be listened to. There mightn’t be another chance.