WITH Brexit parked for the moment, Normal Politics is back – after a fashion. Not before time. There are other matters requiring attention, though clearly none with the potential toxic fall out from a no-deal Brexit ( that with a deal will be bad enough).
We are now well into Year Four of the current Government, with an election due at the latest in February 2021. The original three-Budget Confidence and Supply arrangement between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael was extended into a fourth year to help assist that nothing would side-track the Government from the overwhelming national priority of how to handle Brexit. That task is ongoing, and thus far few would dispute the deftness with which the issue has been handled, nor the 100% support Ireland has received from our EU partners.
Nevertheless the countdown to the next election has begun and the European and local elections due on May 24 should give some indication at least of popular support for the main parties. Recent opinion polls have given inconsistent, indeed at times contradictory, readings for three heavy hitters. While, as in the USA, mid- term elections are normally used to give the incumbents a kicking, this may not happen on this occasion, despite the chronic unresolved issues of Homelessness, Health and Housing – the “dreary steeples” of Irish politics. Again, Brexit may have played its part in this, by concentrating the public’s mind on what is really important and helping to raise awareness that there is no magic bullet to solve any of the main issues.
May 24 might answer several questions. Should Fine Gael reach 30%, on the basis of judicious stewardship, party strategists may advocate an early election, before any nasty outcome to Brexit begins to bite (remembering also that last time around delaying until the end partly to help Labour rebounded badly and didn’t help Labour!). Should Fianna Fail come close to parity this will have justified the statesmanlike decision of Micheal Martin to continue to support the government “in the national interest.” Sinn Fein will be watching closely its performance following a disappointing result in the recent Presidential election and to see how on this occasion its results in the local elections equate with its standing in the opinion polls.
The European elections, even though nothing national is at stake, will be watched with particular attention. Will Sinn Fein be able to repeat its 2014 performance (19.5%) and hold its three seats? Will Fianna Fail, the largest vote getter last time, improve on its single seat? How will the Independents fare? On this last attention will focus on how Peter Casey, runner up in last year’s Presidential election, does in the Midlands/North West constituency. His relative success last year was generally attributed to his anti-Traveller remarks, and he has most recently taken aim at some of the imperfections in Ireland’s immigration policy, including the direct provision system.
It’s worth remembering that, from a standing start, Casey received votes from ten per cent of all those eligible to vote – a percentage not too far off the levels of support for right wing parties elsewhere in Europe. Ireland has thus far not produced a populist right wing movement similar to that in most other European countries and the USA. How Casey does may provide a partial clue to whether Ireland is immune or not to the current populist surges elsewhere. Conventional wisdom (heavily PC) has it that the Irish electorate is moderate by nature, eschews anything extreme and welcomes immigration because of our history of colonial rule and forced emigration. More cynical voices point to our relative isolation as an island behind an island, the fact that so far the numbers of immigrants from outside the EU have been quite small and that until recently the economic situation was hardly conducive to mass immigration.
What is undeniable is that, since the 2004 EU Enlargement, Ireland has experienced proportionately far more immigrants from the new member states than Britain, without apparently the resentment and antipathy which played a factor in the British vote to leave; this despite at least equally harsh years of austerity. One obvious reason is that, unlike the British, the Irish as a whole have “bought into” the European Project and accepted that Enlargement entitled the new EU citizens to come to Ireland. The relatively more generous safety net provisions of the Irish welfare system may also have helped here and there is no doubt that the systematic degrading of the British welfare state in recent decades was another factor, with the new arrivals perceived by some as further straining a creaking system and as undermining existing senses of entitlement . That does not appear to be happening here, but with a rising population, inadequate state funding and chronic frailties in the three “Hs,” there are definite pressures on the system here. Public opinion can be volatile. As the Irish Water fiasco showed an issue can ignite and gain widespread support rapidly in this era of social networks.
Brexit related issues notwithstanding, including the recent violence in Derry, which will hopefully concentrate Northern political minds about the need to solve the current political impasse, the most immediate threat to the Government is the Housing situation in its totality There is no quick fix and the Government line has been consistent, arguing that the underlying major cause is one of shortage of supply after years of stagnation and that the problem will ease over time as more houses and apartments are completed. True, certainly; but “in the long run we are all dead” and several factors are currently melding together in a manner that could create the perfect storm.
Media attention has focussed on the homeless issue, unsurprising given its immediacy and in particular the families involved. But the Housing issue transcends this embracing also factors including market prices, a rising population, increased and pent up demand, a still inadequate level of construction, deficiencies in the types of accommodation actually being built (not enough “social housing”), planning delays and NIMBYism and the imposition of rigid Central Bank credit controls on borrowing to purchase property. This last an attempt to control house prices, dampen demand and avoid a repetition of the black hole of property price boom and bust in the Noughties.
The net result has been a dire and ultimately unsustainable situation. House prices have recovered, though not yet to the dizzy heights of 2008. In a situation where the national average house price country wide is €261,000 and over €380,000 in Dublin ( nine times the average salary), the capital required for a purchase down payment, 20% in most cases, i.e. €50 -80,000 cash, is becoming ever more difficult to raise. Those unable to buy are obliged to rent, forcing already high rents higher. Additionally, with rental returns so profitable ,new players are entering the rental market – so called Cuckoo Funds, cash rich syndicates purchasing whole new and existing property developments, exclusively for renting, thus reducing the numbers of properties available for the public who want to buy. Almost a vicious circle. Surely one requiring Government action. But what action? And when? Before the next election? Time is running out. Banana skins anybody?