Article Published in the Irish Examiner, July 6th 2015.

There remains a lack of a coherent, credible, non-establishment, political alternative that can represent the public mood for change. Recent opinion polls show once again there is nothing certain about the outcome of the next general election. There remains significant political volatility and continuing anti-establishment sentiment which appears to have not yet found a new political home.

We should not be surprised by this, as there have been a number of events that point to growing numbers of ordinary people expressing their desire for social and political change. For example, the Marriage Equality referendum pointed to a citizen-led, ground up, process of positive and progressive change that goes beyond what existing politics represents. The water protests contain similar elements of a community-led, grassroots, movement of opposition.

But it wasn’t just opposition, protesters explain they are seeking a “different type” of Ireland, a more “caring Ireland” where people are prioritised over ‘the economy’ and are given “real decision making” about major policy. The water protests continue at a community level and we should not forget that this remains one of the largest social movements in Ireland since independence. But will this unprecedented popular mood and demand for fundamental change be expressed and represented in the coming general election?

The longer-term trend in the opinion polls since shows a move away from the traditional parties (Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Labour) who have a combined core vote (when undecided voters are included) of as low as 40%. Furthermore, the combined first preference vote of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in the Carlow Kilkenny byelection was just 48% — a minority of the first preference vote. To put the magnitude of the decline in support for the traditional parties in context, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil received 68% of the vote in 2007 but just 53.4% in 2011. Labour support has collapsed. The most recent polls show the surge in support for non-traditional politics in the form of independents. But they also point to the failure of existing alternatives such as Renua, the Greens and the radical left Socialist Workers Party (People Before Profit Alliance) and the Socialist Party (Anti-Austerity Alliance) to win voters.

Part of this is also down to division among the left, for example, in the byelection, the two socialist parties, as in the European elections, stood candidates against each other.

Sinn Féin also face many challenges and appear static with around 20% of the popular vote which leaves a major gap for them to form a government. So unless some new political alternative emerges that is prepared to work alongside them in an “alternative” government, Sinn Féin will have to choose between long-term opposition or putting Fianna Fáil back into government. There remains, therefore, a lack of a coherent and credible, non-establishment, political alternative that can represent the mood for change.
Unless such an alternative emerges, the general election will result in little substantive change in policy direction. We could see a coalition government of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, Renua, and some independents along with what remains of the Labour Party.

But there is no major economic or social policy difference between these parties. They all prioritise making Ireland “the best small country in the world in which to do business” with the result that society comes second place. They have all imposed austerity, refused to stand up to Europe for justice on our debt, privatised public services, worsened poverty and inequality, and did little to deliver political reform.

The government parties have a strong argument that they have delivered an economic recovery and are returning money into people’s pockets through the budget. And to maintain the fragile recovery people should vote for stability and not any alternatives that might jeopardise this.

However, this ignores the impact of austerity policies and the Government’s decision to focus on tax cuts rather than spending increases on areas like housing, health, and welfare.

Any serious political challenge will have to speak up for the groups still excluded from the recovery and provide positive and inclusive solutions that can achieve a fair recovery for everyone.

The grassroots approach in which the referendum campaign and the water movement have operated shows that if the general election is going to be fought using the traditional ways of doing politics in Ireland, then little will change. They suggest that something new and dramatic is required to “change the rules of the game” and empower citizens to create a new type of democratic, people-driven politics. This is what the successful new political movements of Podemos and Barcelona Together have done in recent elections in Spain. They have developed a new politics of the left that advocates human rights and democracy through citizen participation.

Any new political alternative should draw on this and lead in political reform by empowering and involving ordinary people who have never been involved in politics before through citizens’ assemblies, public forums, online input into policy development, and pioneering policies that will deliver genuine democratic reform such as citizen-initiated referendums.

Rory Hearne

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