We don’t do general elections in Ireland the way they do general elections in the rest of Europe, but then again, do we do anything here in Ireland like the rest of Europe?
Vive la différence, you might say — or not, depending on how averse you are to pretentious use of foreign phrases in a country that can’t speak its own language. But for myself, I love the spectacular blood sport that is our election process. It’s the only true festival we have, if you disregard the meaningless lip service we pay to church-imposed rituals like Easter and commerce-driven feasts like Christmas.
We love St Patrick’s Day so much we decided it should take place during the most miserable weather Ireland has to suffer in the entire year so that we can endure a brief but intense sado-masochistic experience as we sulk on rain-soaked street corners watching bad brass bands play worse music to the ill-educated leathery spouses of whiskey-soaked councillors all huddled against the downpour on temporary viewing stands of rough scaffold-board and rusting steel tube, secretly wishing they could already be eating the free dinner.
So much for Irish festivals, but that’s why we love the election so much. It doesn’t involve misery for anyone except those who cravenly beg your vote, once every five years or so.
Yes, it’s true that after they get into power they’ll walk on us but at least we enjoy the illusion every now and again of having a say in matters. And it’s true that regardless of how grounded they claim to be, everyone is corruptible, even if corruption means nothing more than a gradual acclimatisation to the perks.
Face it: this happens. Ask Martin and Gerry if you don’t believe me. Everyone likes a bit of cossetting. I do and so do you.
Of course, here in Ireland, we have a slightly different way of looking at our members of parliament compared to, for instance, the Brits. Or maybe not. Maybe we just have more access to our parliamentarians than the Brits do, given our vastly smaller population. And besides, we have no evidence that the vision of our parliamentarians is any more parochial than theirs.
But leaving our closest neighbours to one side for a moment, it’s probably fair to say that our other neighbours, the ones on the mainland, tend to elect their parliament in a different way, based on a national vision rather than a parochial one but Voila! Spot the difference. Throughout mainland Europe, they have a thing known as strong local government. Right across the continent, they have municipalities that can make decisions for themselves, unlike Ireland where the administration is more centralised than it ever was in the Soviet Union.
Could this be why our people persist in electing members of parliament using the same criteria they’d apply if they were voting for a county councillor?
Could this be why a ward-heeling fixer like Willie O’Dea could top the poll in Limerick and why two stroke-pulling brothers in Kerry could between them attract 30,000 votes? Is this why Tipperary has elected not only Michael Lowry but also Mattie McGrath to our national parliament? Is this why Enda Kenny topped the poll in Mayo?
Is that it?
Is it because successive governments, right from the foundation of the State, didn’t trust the people to run their own affairs locally and instead set up a system of local administration controlled directly from Dublin, by the Minister personally?
I think we might be on to something here.
If this is the case, then what option do people have but to elect glorified county councillors to our parliament? And what other consequence can we expect apart from a debasement of the democratic process, since the bulk of people elected will inevitably be focused on doing local favours or at least creating the illusion that they have the power to do so. Many of our most prominent national politicians devote their entire day to fostering that illusion, like so many fairground conjurers and we elect them to do it.
With all these magicians, should we be surprised to have a parliament of clowns?
Does it come as any shock that most of those we send to Dáíl Éireann wouldn’t know an international crisis from a free bus pass?
You’d nearly be inclined to give up, wouldn’t you? Many times, I’ve been tempted to give up but then along comes another general election and even if I can’t go on, I’ll go on.
Look at them, scrambling for power, the FG and the FF, the AAA and the PBP, the WTF and the OMG. Alphabet soup of the soul, driving us all to despondency and yet, in the middle of it all, there sounds a tiny clarion of hope. For the first time, almost but not quite ever, the two Tweedledum parties are agreeing that there is no difference between them apart from ancient tribal hatreds.
I say not quite ever because Alan Dukes once acknowledged this fact in his politically suicidal Tallaght strategy, but Dukes was one of those politicians we didn’t deserve. Nevertheless, he committed Fine Gael to support Fianna Fáil’s painful economic measures and he duly paid the political price for having a national vision. Such is life in Ireland.
However, there’s a minute but detectable tide on the rise. After the first 2016 general election, we find ourselves in a position where Fianna Fáíl and Fine Gael will have to play footsie whether they like it or not. They’ll have to explore an arrangement, whether they call it a coalition or an agreement or an alliance. They might even revert to gag-inducing tokenism and call it a Comhaontas, but let’s hope they don’t.
Let’s hope instead that they decide to cooperate and form a joint government.
Why? Because thus begins the consolidation of the centre-right parties into one single entity as it should be. There’s no rational reason why two identical parties should coexist, offering voters a spurious, tribalistic choice. After a while, like two neutron stars orbiting each other, they’ll merge with a bang causing ripples in political space-time, but setting free their uncomfortable satellites to find new orbits
Meanwhile, on the Left, there will be a ferment for a while. There will be a gavotte of madmen and idiots dancing to the tune of an insane devil until it all settles down and we find ourselves with a modern, mature European democracy.
It might not happen this time or the next, but it seems to me that the tendency is there and we might finally be about to free ourselves from the emotional manacles of the civil war.
How appropriate that the seeds should have been sown a century after 1916.