later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
where does it hurt?
- Warsan Shire, “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon”
Faced with a record number of homeless, a totally dysfunctional health service and a generation unable to afford to move out, the Irish people have finally voted for change – but they are not quite ready to rip the century-old sticking plaster of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael from their skin just yet.
Irish people are suffering, but not all of them, and the cry at the ballot box on Saturday was tempered by the murmur of contentment from those for whom change might mean not enjoying the same privilege as they once had.
The exit poll on Saturday night when the polls closed was seismic in that it put the Sinn Fèin cat among the otherwise unflappable political pigeons – but for every peal of the bell calling for a new Ireland, almost half still voted for the establishment parties.
Almost, but not quite half. The two main parties sliding under 50% was a key moment, but discerning what they are gradually being replaced by is not as easy as it looks.
On the one hand they are being directly supplanted by Sinn Féin – young (but not exclusively so), energetic and hungry for something different.
On the other hand, there are a plethora of independent candidates and smaller-party TDs who are as yet untried.
The Social Democrats – a party I have strong links to – look to be among the big winners. Comprehensive policy documents and common-sense arguments look to have resonated and the party will most likely end up with five or six seats, but at council level some of the decisions taken by the party have been dubious at best, and the more streetwise in Irish politics will seek to use their enthusiasm against them.
The Greens have also made considerable gains, but it’s hard to discern exactly where they are on the political spectrum – this, after all, is the party that blithely supported Fianna Fáil as they destroyed the Irish economy.
In a supposed progressive victory, there may yet be less female TDs than in the previous Dáil when the dust settles.
As usual, climate change-deniers like the Healy-Raes have been rewarded for their parish pump politics, and the bye-word for corruption in Irish politics, Michael Lowry, has once again been returned to the Dáil.
Despite their worst election performance since 1948 (and possibly ever), Fine Gael are still haughtily insisting that they were right all along and that it was an ignorant electorate that failed to recognise their greatness.
They will always have a core vote of wealthy people keen to protect their own interests, but for them to succeed they also need the blue-collar vote – that has now gone to Sinn Féin, and it may not go back for a very long time.
Micheál Martin has run a classic Fianna Fáil campaign, immediately abandoning everything he said in the run-up to polling day as he attempts a power grab. From ruling out coalition with Sinn Féin, he is now a democrat who respects their mandate – a sleeveen move as arrogant as it was predictable.
The most popular party in the country is Sinn Féin, for the first time in living memory, and leader Mary-Lou McDonald immediately came out swinging, saying she wants a government without the big two parties.
The road from here on in is fraught with danger for Mary-Lou. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael habitually destroy junior coalition partners and she would do well to steer clear of both, but doing so would require shoring up a coalition of the willing – people who share their core principles, but who are flexible enough to understand the give and take of minority government.
Success there would likely hasten the demise of the the two right-wing parties and perhaps eventually force a merger – failure, and Sinn Féin could go the way of Labour, blamed for not delivering on their mandate and consigned to the sidelines as punishment, opening the path for Ireland to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Ireland has voted for change, but not in the kind of revolutionary way that one might have expected; the old remain conservative, the young impatient, and somewhere in between is where McDonald must begin to build her government.
What speaks against the broad left coalition is its traditional fractiousness and political puritanism – what speaks for them is that their opposition have no principles, apart from the pursuit of power. If they seek to block the kind of progressive change that people have voted for, they will be punished accordingly.
Time will tell if this election changes the course of a young country, or if it is a mere bump in the road. Recent electoral history elsewhere have shown us just how easy it is to slip back into old ways in search of security.
Change, but change gently, is what the Irish people have asked for.