An entirely unimportant election that offers voters no choice at all

An entirely unimportant election that offers voters no choice at all Taoiseach Leo Varadkar Photo: The Irish News
In Irish politics the main parties agree on almost everything, writes John McGuirk

Speaking to the Sunday Times at the weekend, the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar declared that the election campaign which is now underway would be “a once in a generation moment”, and “as important for the country as the campaigns of 1977, and 1997”. In a campaign that will no doubt see its fair share of politicians spinning, this set the bar for exaggeration.

The truth is that this is an entirely unimportant election, by any standard. Important elections are those where we can look back in 20 or 30 years and say that on polling day, the country made an important decision that had long-lasting ramifications.

Scholars will look back, for example, at the recent election in Britain and note that the voters made a major decision to confirm the result of the Brexit referendum. Had that election gone another way, Britain might not be leaving the EU at all and would probably be facing another referendum on the subject this summer.

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In Ireland, what’s the major choice before us? In fact, what’s the choice at all? What even, one might ask, are the issues? We are presented, at face value, with a choice between two prospective Taoisigh, Mr Varadkar and Micheál Martin. When the canvassers for each man arrive at your door in the next few weeks, and if you want to have a little fun, ask them to name three things their man disagrees with the other fellow on.

Brexit? They’re in total agreement. Health? More ‘resources’ are needed, and maybe a committee to look at ‘reform’. Education? They both want to get class sizes down. The children’s hospital cost overrun? One says it’ll be worth it in the end, the other (Deputy Martin) wants an investigation into what happened. Neither man will get a penny back for you.

On every single controversial issue over the past four years, both men have agreed. We have seen two controversial referendums this decade, on marriage, and on abortion. Both times, the two lads lined up on the same side.

If you’re in the third of the country or so who dissented on either, you have no choice at all from our major parties.

On the economy, major differences between them are irrelevant. In 2011, at the urging of both parties, we voted ourselves into the EU’s fiscal compact treaty, meaning that our ability to run a deficit is limited.

When you hear them shouting and roaring on the television about spending increases versus tax cuts, bear in mind that they are talking about miniscule amounts of money, because they’re not allowed to talk about anything bigger, thanks to Brussels.

On policy, both parties have identical instincts. You can predict what their views will be on any given subject in six months’ time by reading press releases from NGOs today. Does Alcohol Action Ireland want higher taxes on vodka? That’ll be Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael policy by June.

Ask yourself this: at the last election, how many of you voted to extend special ethnic status to travellers? How many of you voted to create new jobs in universities that only women could apply for? How many people voted for a change in the law that means that any man can become a woman, legally, tomorrow, just by filling out a form? How many of you voted, at the last election, for a party that would bring in an abortion law up to 12 weeks? Or for a €10 minimum price on a bottle of wine? Or on taking the ‘Catholic’ out of Catholic schools?

We’re deciding who gets to sit in a Toyota Prius, these days. If you object to a carbon tax by the way, who do you vote for to be the taoiseach?”

These were major, controversial changes to Irish law, or at least they should have been controversial. There was only a meaningful debate about one of them, and only then because there had to be a referendum.

If there was no need for a referendum, the abortion law would have gone through on the nod.

On each of the issues, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were broadly in agreement. So, there was no national debate, no discussion, no controversy. Some of you may only be hearing about one or more of these laws now.

Elections in Ireland at the moment, therefore, decide very little besides which bums go into which Mercedes. They won’t be Mercedes’ for very long, by the way, because both parties agree wholeheartedly that we must embrace the climate agenda.

We’re deciding who gets to sit in a Toyota Prius, these days. If you object to a carbon tax by the way, who do you vote for to be the taoiseach?

Nobody, is the answer. If ‘democracy’ is about the choice of the people being implemented, then it’s hardly a democracy when you have no choice to make.

Outside the big two parties, the choice is equally limited. On not one of the issues I mention is or was there disagreement from Sinn Féin, or Labour, or the Greens. On 95% of the issues in Irish politics, 95% of the parties agree.

On the 5% where there is disagreement, you’ll see very little action – those things get sent off to committees to produce a report that never gets acted upon. Do you remember a few years ago when there was disagreement on how to reform the Seanad? Everyone agreed to get a report, knowing that it would be forgotten about when it finally arrived.

In Ireland, what’s the major choice before us? In fact, what’s the choice at all? What even, one might ask, are the issues?”

If you want real change in Ireland, you have to vote for real change. But it’s not very easy, is it? Peadar Tóibín’s Aontú party are about the only party to offer anything aside from 95% agreement on everything else, and it’s no disrespect to say that they’re not likely to form the next government. If you agree with them, get out and vote for them, or others who are likely to break the stifling consensus in Irish politics. They may not win, but we have to start somewhere.

Because elections only matter if there is a real, and meaningful choice between competing visions of where the country should go. And in Ireland, there simply is not.

The election doesn’t matter a jot – don’t let politicians tell you otherwise.