Careful communication a 'disease of the Left'
"Have you ever heard Eamon Gilmore tell a joke?" asked An Phoblacht's Robbie Smyth at a political discussion at the Pearse Centre yesterday evening. Notwithstanding Gilmore's 46% approval rating for Taoiseach in Donegal this week, Smyth said that the Labour leader is "not a great communicator" and described both Gilmore and Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny as "careful, controlled, and muted". By Alison Spillane. Additional reporting by Malachy Browne
Mr Smyth was speaking at a public meeting entitled 'Ireland in Crisis: Challenging the Consensus'. He also criticised the failings of Sinn Fein in terms of communication and achieving consensus. He said that Sinn Féin's pre-budget submission is "a good answer [to the current crisis] but they haven't convinced enough people that it's the right answer".
Although Sinn Fein candidate Pearse Doherty polled an approval rating of 40% among Donegal South-West voters this week, nationwide the party has failed to break the 10% ceiling in successive polls. Doherty has presented an alternative to the prevailing view that budgetary cuts must be "front-loaded" and has proposed investing some of the pension reserve fund in a jobs stimulus. These proposals clearly resonate with voters in Donegal while the wider party has failed to convince nationally.
Mr Smyth also spoke about the "disease of the Left", saying the Left is good at dissecting things but not at putting them back together in a way that people can understand.
Historian Conor McCabe, who chaired the event, described Sinn Féin's budget proposal as a "coherent left-wing analysis". He said the influence of TASC and the Irish Left Review among others is shown in the proposals but highlighted the fact that this kind of discourse is sidelined by the mainstream media. (In conjunction with academics and various representative groups, Politico.ie will host a portal for comprehensive analysis and alternative budgetary solutions in the 10 days around Budget 2011. This commentary will dispel some of the common myths put forward by the political establishment and mainstream media about Ireland's fiscal options.)
Mary Murphy of NUI Maynooth also spoke at the meeting. She compared the Irish Republic to France saying the latter's founding principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity could be seen all over the country. Ireland, she said, lacks a set of core values that should be inherent to the existence of a republic.
She said society has been trapped into a "narrow, one-dimensional space" by a "conservative, Catholic and clientelist State". The Irish State, she said, stamps out people's imagination, and promoting change is therefore difficult.
The response to this has been fragmented among individuals and groups advocating change, Murphy said. With the budget looming, she said, it is understandable that different sectors of society are trying to protect their own interests but alternative ideas may appear small because of this lack of solidarity.
Both Smyth and Murphy emphasised the need for dialogue – Ireland is in crisis and people can begin to challenge the consensus by talking to each other as citizens and voicing the kind of change they want for the country.
Indeed, it has become clear that radical political reform is needed in Ireland. As one member of the audience observed, voting good people into a broken system is pointless. Recently, independent TDs have threatened the precariously balanced government with dissent on national issues if their (local) demands are not met. Whether these local issues are right or wrong, this undermines democracy. There is a strong case for a list electoral system instead of PR.
It is true that the IMF is no longer on our doorstep – it is in our living room. Yet few media outlets and no political party is asking if alternatives to EU/IMF involvement remain. Economist Constantine Gurdiev last night argued for a review of the banking guarantee which protects more than €20 billion of bondholder investment in Anglo. This option was not raised once in recent high-profile interviews on RTE with the Finance Minister Brian Lenihan and Central Bank Governor Patrick Honahan.
Ireland will survive this crisis. Ideally by using the current situation as a catalyst for change. History has shown us that countries can emerge renewed and stronger from periods of great crisis; the Welfare State, for example, grew out of the chaos and destruction of the Second World War. If we cannot completely overhaul the current political system (but why shouldn't we?) let us at least take steps to make it a more equal system and one which is more representative of the population.
A new electoral system could introduce representative quotas; gender quotas for example are critical in this respect. A system whereby half of the population is represented by only 13% in the Dáil cannot continue. Furthermore, the lack of choice on ballot papers is stifling – we should no longer have to choose the best of a bad lot (although ironically the worst of a bad lot have governed us for the past 13 years). New online portals have emerged that seek to foster debate on political issues and engage new people in politics. Jolitics.com is an ideas forum where ideas and solutions are proposed and voted upon. Founder Michael Birch said in an interview with Politico that Jolitics aims to inspire new candidates to enter politics and implement the ideas that have been widely debated. A new website generalelection.ie will be launched this weekend with the express goal of providing a platform for new political candidates ahead of the next election. Notably, these are independent initiatives, not supported or endorsed by government or political parties who rely on traditional party politics to groom new candidates.
Political dynasties and clientelism should have no place in the new republic; our representatives should be driven by a real devotion to public service, not by ministerial cars and parochialism. As well as lawyers and schoolteachers, our parliament should have engineers, technologists and community activists.
Public debate is gaining momentum; events like yesterday's meeting and last month's Claiming Our Future where over 1,000 people gathered in the RDS are just two examples. Hundreds of people gathered at meetings in every county preceding the Claiming Our Future national event. The people at these events did not agree on everything, but they were united in a desire for change. People are talking, and this time hopefully they will be heard.