Special Debate: A steady resistance to moral indignation

Politicians, journalists, a feminist and an economist discuss the significance of Election 1982.

The interview took place on Wednesday, March 3. Brian Lenihan of Fianna Fail was to have participated but had to withdraw at the last moment.

Vincent Browne: Do the results of this election indicate any kind of breakkthrough for the Left in Irish politics, through the SFWP, or has there simply been a realignment?

Pat McCartan: The election was cerrtainly a breakthrough for SFWP and with the election of other left candiidates, such as Tony Gregory and Jim Kemmy, I think it fair to claim that there was a breakthrough for the left generally.

Vincent Browne: We've been hearing of breakthroughs for the Left since. 1965, why should it be any different now?

Pat McCartan: One of the propositions of SFWP is that left wing policies have never been agitated for properly. The Labour Party flirted with left wing views prior to 1969 but since then has abandoned them. Over the past seveeral years SFWP has been putting forrward coherent left wing positions on all the major issues and I think that the fact that it has now captured 3
seats, represents a very significant breakthrough for left wing politics here. Just a few weeks prior to the election the SFWP published a policy statement on the nationalisation of the banks. This was an issue in the elecction because while the two major parrties debated about trivial differences between them on the budget we were raising the issue of wealth redistribuution and hitting the rich. In all the constituencies we contested our vote was up on the last occasion. And on the issue of re-alignment, it wasn't Labour Party seats which we won in this election - we took a seat from Fianna Fail in Waterford and from Fine Gael in Dublin North West. Gerald Barry: These were traditionally Labour seats however. The Waterford seat was formerly held by Tom Kyne of Labour and the Dublin North West seat by Micky Mullen. These later went to other parties but the Labour votes was there and SFWP simply capptured that vote - it could not be reepresented as a new swing to a left wing position.

Colm McCarthy: The left wing vote is now lower than it was in 1969. Then the Labour Party won 17% of the total vote. The combined vote of Labour and SFWP is now around 11 %.

Pat McCartan: I agree that a lot has been lost to the Left over the last deecade or so but that ground is now being recovered by SFWP. Labour's participation in the mid-seventies Coaalition discredited left wing politics to a large extent and a price was paid by the Left for this. It was during that period that unemployment soared to over 100,000 and critically wrong decisions were taken on natural reesources such as off-shore oil and the Navan ore body.

Sean Duignan: I agree it has been a realignment but an important one. In politics, as in other spheres of life, success breeds success and this breakkthrough by SFWP could lead to furrther electoral gains by the party, which is now clearly identifiable as a significant political force. I think that this fact accounts for the convulsions that have taken place within the Labour Party over the last few weeks. Maurice Manning: It was a breakkthrough for SFWP but I cannot see how they are going to make much more electoral headway - indeed their hold on each of the three seats is very precarious. The Labour Party will proobably continue to lose seats in areas such as South Tipperary, CarlowwKilkenny etc. where the personality factor of the sitting TD is a very potent one and the left wing political votes as such rather weak.

Geraldine Kennedy: I don't think that there has been any major change in Irish politics - I believe that the rise of the SFWP and the numbers of Inndependents, is an abberation. The most outstanding aspect of the recent election is the continued, indeed growing, strength of the two major parties, Fianna F ail and Fine Gael. Colm McCarthy: The most outstannding aspect of the election has been how the halving of the number of 33seat constituencies has again resulted in an inconclusive result. In the 1977 election there were 26 three-seat connstituencies. In the 1981 and 1982 elecctions there have been only 13 threeeseaters. Had the same constituency sizes applied now as applied in 1977 there would have been a clear-cut reesult in both recent elections.

Gerald Barry: The fact is however that the merest swing to either party both now and last year would have given a conclusive result. In the 1981 elecction Fianna Fail missed retaining power by only 260 votes - with 94 extra votes on the last count in Wexxford it would have taken the Labour seat and with 166 votes in Dublin North it would have held its second seat. In the 1982 election I estimate that Fianna Fail would have won 84 seats with only 250 extra votes in a few key constituencies,

Colm McCarthy: That's all daft postthockery. The fact is that with more three seat constituencies Fianna Fail would have been virtually certain to have won an overall majority this time, having captured 47.9% of the first preference votes.

Gerald Barry: All that assumes a uniiform swing throughout the country which never happens. All sorts of vagaries enter the electoral process and all I'm claiming is that it was pure chance that Fianna Fail didn't get those additional handfuls of votes to give them power.

Maurice Manning: Proportional repreesentation worked well in terms of prooducing conclusive results for a long time. The fact that it worked in this was for so long is what is remarkable, not that it now produces inconcluusive results. It is only now that the logic of the proportional representation system is beginning to work ittself out.

Geraldine Kennedy: There is nothing wrong with this inconclusive result. I believe that the country has got exacttly what the electorate wanted. The electorate wasn't happy to give Fianna Fail, led by Charles Haughey, a manndate and it was unwilling to give a mandate to the Coalition, I believe because of an instinctive doubt about the political skills of Garret FitzGerald. Sean Duignan: I believe that there has been an inconclusive result in this elecction which, given the draconian budget that precipitated it, is itself amazing. I was firmly convinced at the outset of campaign that Fianna Fail would get an overall majority, that the electorate simply would refuse to give a mandate to that budget. I can only conclude that there has emerged a greater apppreciation of the economic realities of our situation and that the Garret FitzzGerald factor was an enormous innfluence on the outcome.

Sylvia Meehan: I think it important to point out that while there was the statement of the harshest budget yet, there wasn't the actual experience of people learning what it was like to live with it as the budget was defeated. Apart from that there must have been a feeling that the Coalition didn't have a sufficient innings and that they deeserved a longer stint in office. There was, of course, the memory of the last Fianna Fail Government still fresh in most people's minds.

Sean Duignan: I think that Charlie Haughey was unlucky in a number of respects in this election and one of them was that he possibly collided with Garret FitzGerald at the apogee of Garret's personal popularity. Had the Coalition Government fallen say towards the -end of 1982 with unemmployment very much worse, with the budget having bitten hard into people's pockets, with the problems of inflation still continuing, then I don't beelieve that the FitzGerald magic would have been anything as near as potent a force in the election as it has been. Colm McCarthy: The electorate did experience the July budget which was pretty harsh and the electorate knew full well what the effects of the J annuary budget would have been if immplemented, so I don't think you can place too much weight on the point made by Sylvia that while there had been the statement of a harsh budget there wasn't the experience of it. Maurice Manning: I think that the immpact of the economists - and they are not very beautiful people - and the media over the last 6 or 7 months was profound. The mood of the electorate was very different this time as commpared wtih June of last year. You had women on doorsteps worried about the current budget deficit, for God's sake. That new mood certainly offfset the impact of the budget or what would otherwise have been the electoral impact of the budget. There is another point worth making here. It is that our system of multi-seat constituencies alllows the' electorate a very wide range of options. Take for instance someebody who was very much opposed to Charles Haughey, they could still vote Fianna Fail by giving number one to say a known anti-Haughey Fianna Fail candidate in their constituency. There is also the point that a great number of people vote for the candidate who has best served their interests in terms of constituency service alone. The sysstem does not focus one's mind on the issues or the parties.

Vincent Browne: The election was dominated by the budget and this dominance was encouraged by the media but is this really good enough? In any general election there are a whole range of issues on which the electorate might or perhaps should base its judgement - issues such as women's rights, poverty, civil liberrties, Northern Ireland. These hardly got a look-in at all throughout the campaign. Should the media be tryying to subvert the settled consensus of the party establishments on the major issues of a campaign and drag in these other issues into the forefront of the debate?

Michael D. Higgins: I think the media got it seriously wrong this time. At the outset of the campaign they said that the election was going to be simply a referendum for or against the budget. It became clear immediately however on the doorsteps that unemployment was to be the big issue and it was only half way through the campaign thai the media copped on to this rea lity , The fact is that the media reflects the dominant political forces in society and the concerns of these forrces alone.

Maurice Manning: There is a certain arrogance in saying that the media should dictate the issues of a campaign. The fact is that the political party machines are highly sensitive to the issues that are being thrown up on the doorsteps. Essentially, it is the electorate that defines the issues, not the political parties. The media should obviously try to broaden out the deebate but it has no right to try to dicctate what the issues should be. Geraldine Kennedy: I think this was the best media election in my experience, certainly far better than in 1981. It was the media, for instance, that forced Flanna Fail into producing an alternative budget.

Colm McCarthy: As an economist, I'm pessimistic about what Governments can actually accomplish in the ecoonomic area. There is very little Governnments can do about employment, inncomes and indeed inflation, although you'd never think that from listening to politicians during general election campaigns. But there is quite a lot politicians can do in social areas. For instance, they could introduce a Bill to hold a referendum to remove the constitutional prohibition on divorce, they could reform the law on homoosexuality and on contraception. These are only a few areas of change which politicians could inaugurate which now spring to mind.

But there is a bias in public debate towards those areas where the power of politicians to do anything is weakkest - the economic area - against those areas, primarily the social area, where the influence of Parliament is greatest.

Gerald Barry: But the people don't care about homosexuality, divorce, contraception, etc. They care about the mess the economy is in and how we are going to get out of it.

Michael D. Higgins: Any Government has to address itself to the issue of unemployment and yet this did not become a media issue in the campaign until halfway through.

Vincent Browne: Unfortunately, the issue of unemployment could not have become a major issue of contention in the campaign and perhaps it was for this reason that it did not get the prominence that it deserved. The fact is that there is very little Governnments can do about unemployment and the claims and counter-elaims to provide X number of jobs are just fatuous. The fact is that we can proovide employment in this small open economy only through improving our cost competitiveness and essentially this means our wage costs. There are genuine differences on how our wage costs can be kept down - on the one hand one can have rigid wage control mechanisms or on the other one can create the climate for wage moderration through the institution of a sysstem of equity in terms of wealth disstribution which induces wage moderration.

Michael D. Higgins: There is a basic political difference between that view and what might be regarded as a Left wing viewpoint. It has never been shown clearly how wage costs are a factor in unemployment.

Colm McCarthy: In an open trading economy the extent to which one can produce and sell output depends on its cost competitiveness. That's abbsolutely unavoidable. Wage costs amount to 75% of total output. Thereefore if you have a situation in which output costs are high in any open ecoonomy, that economy is going to conntract. Thus, if wage costs get out of hand, as they have done, then the ecoonomy is going to run down and emmployment is going to fall.

Sean Duignan: Getting back to the question, should the media have broaadened the political debate during the campaign more than it did? The fact is, that because of the manner in which the election came about, the budget and fiscal issues were predained issues of the campaign; But I think it is interesting to point out that the media came down decisively on one side on these issues - the media decided that the Government's stance on these fiscal issues was right and the media's influence with the electorate on this issue, as Maurice Manning has already said, was very considerable. Sylvia Meehan: If journalists allow the political parties to dictate what the issues are in an election campaign it is akin to an interviewer allowing the interviewee to dictate what the quesstions are going to be.

Vincent Browne: Women's rights is arguably one of the most crucial issues in our society and yet this issue surrfaced hardly at all during the course of the election.

Sean Duignan: The issue of women's rights was superceded in this election.

I believe that this and other social issues will come to the fore in the middeighties but because of the manner in which this election came about it was inevitable that the budget would domiinate the campaign.

Michael D. Higgins: If you follow this line of argument that issues of fundaamental rights must be subordinated to economic issues and if you maintain that the issue of women's rights should not have become a central issue in the campaign because women didn't raise them, then you would in logic have to argue that slavery should not have been abolished. It is not only right, but necessary, that the media and inndividual politicians should have pushed women's rights.

Sylvia Meehan: So long as the political parties take the view that women's rights are an isolated range of topics centred on practical examples of disscrimin.ation and disadvantage they will remain marginal to every other topic instead of being integrated into every economic and social development. The issue is really not rights so much as the status of women in our society. There are two main areas to be looked at Xthe economic independence of women and the treatment of motherhood. Since most women do become or exxpect to become mothers and there reemains a linked penalty clause on the economic independence side, the status of women is devalued in our society. Just because this issue isn't apparently raised by women on the doorstep canvass doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Equally, so long as the media doesn't go further than talk about equal rights in an unequal socciety then, the status of women in health, education and employment opportunities will appear to be topical from time to time but not part of major political issues.

Vincent Browne: Finally, was the media biased against Fianna Fail? Geraldine Kennedy: I think it was (for quite good reasons. The media was in a position to judge Charlie Haughey, the media was in a position to appreeciate the extent of the divisions withhin Fianna Fail and to judge whether Fianna Fail could implement a clear and consistent policy in Government. The media made its collective mind up on these issues as it had a right to do but more importantly, the media reeported on these issues for the beneefit of the electorate, as it had a duty to do. Apart from this, however, there was a lot of personal sniping against Charlie Haughey which was unfair. It could just as equally have been done on Garret FitzGerald, and it wasn't. Sean Duignan: Any casual perusal of any cross section of the Irish newspapers during the course of the campaign would reveal that people writing about politics were less than enamoured with Charles J. Haughey.

This goes right back to the man's record, questions about how he got his money, how he came to stand trial in the Four Courts, questions about the sustained resistance to him from within his own party. It was perhaps inevitable that this would be so. Then there was the further factor that Haughey's opponent in the election, Garret FitzGerald, was enormously appealing to the media - he is open and responsive, he knows the requiree.rnents in the press and because of his own background he knows people in the media on a personal basis.

That all said, there is no clear eviidence that Charles Haughey as a perrson should not lead the Irish people. Even from the dissidents within Fianna Fail there is no specific reason ever given as to why Charlie is not a fit person to lead the party or the country - all there are are the dark hints that he is unsuitable. I feel that the media reflected these unstated reservations about Haughey and beecause they are unstated and therefore unsubstantiated they were unfair.

The media should be guided by a remark of a former journalist: one's primary asset, apart from a serene spirit, is a steady resistance to moral indignation.

Pat McCartan: It really was inevitable that the media would be fascinated by Haughey for the man's record invites that. He was the star defendant in a sensational trial, he lives in a luxurious mansion and travels by helicopter to his holiday island home, he displays wealth which is totally out of keeping with the standard of living of the ordinary Irish person.

Michael D. Higgins: Some years back there was the popular belief about Haughey among some sections of the population that he might do for the rest of us what he did for himself in terms of making us all rich. He had a certain folk image of a strong man who could look after himself and perrhaps the rest of us. But that image has gone entirely because of what is now seen as his vacillation and indecisiveness in Government.

Maurice Manning: There is another side to this issue of media bias against Fianna Fail. The Gulliver column in The Sunday Press was positively sycophantic towards Haughey. The Irish Press editorials of Tim Pat Coogan were unrestrained in their praise for the party and its leader and of course there was John Healy's perrsistent infatuation with Haughey throughout the campaign. And, reemember when Haughey became Taoiiseach there was unrestrained joy exxpressed in The Irish Times editorials and in the writings of one unnamed journalist in Magill. So there was bias both for and against Haughey.

Sylvia Meehan: I think there was an over-emphasis on Haughey throughhout the campaign to the detriment of a lot of issues, some of which we have already discussed and one of which, Northern Ireland, we have ignored in another manifestation of the preevailing view down here that the North doesn't matter.

Colm McCarthy: I think there was a clear bias in editorials and political commentaries against Haughey. News reporting however in general was fair. There was an indulgence of Fine Gael and of the anti-Haughey wing of Fianna Fail.