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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Previously published on The Journal.ie

The Reform Alliance is gathering momentum as it prepares for its conference on January 25th in the RDS. It appears to be the prelude to the formation of a new political party (although that’s been denied). But in the media coverage (at times overtly fawning) of the Alliance there appears to be little real questioning of the nature of the ‘reform’ they are claiming they stand for, nor much about who will benefit from such ‘reform’.

Lucinda Creighton, who is leading the movement thus far, has stated that the Alliance is “interested in anybody who is interested in reform… genuinely implementing reform and not just talking about it”. However, this, and the majority of their media statements, tells us nothing of the policies they are proposing – such as what would they implement in government?

Where we do get some insight into their policies, and their proposed ‘reform’, is in the political policies and stances that its leading spokespeople like Lucinda Creighton took prior to the formation of the Reform Alliance.

The same policies that caused the crash

Firstly, and most significantly, the economic policies advocated by Lucinda Creighton and the other TDs of the Reform Alliance have been the same neo-liberal, pro-capitalist policies that caused the crash. These are the neo-liberal economics that promote the concepts of deregulating markets, free trade, competitiveness, pro-multinational capital, privatisation of public services, low wages, reducing taxes on wealth and supporting corporate profiteering.

Lucinda and the other former Fine Gael TDs supported wholeheartedly the austerity approach which has kept us in the crisis and has imposed the burden of the adjustment on the poor and those on lower incomes. Lucinda and the other TDs involved in the Reform Alliance voted for each austerity budget since entering government in 2011 and they also led the campaign for the Fiscal Treaty Referendum in 2012, which enshrined austerity into the heart of the euro area and handed over more control over our budgets to the European Commission and EU institutions.

Even when they talk about the necessity of ensuring ‘social inclusion’ it is to be brought about through the Thatcherite economic theory of generating private entrepreneurial and corporate growth that will then supposedly ‘trickle down’ to the lower classes.

Influencing the balance of power

We would discover the true intent of their ‘reform’ policies if the Alliance declared its stance on forming part of the next government. With between five and ten TDs, the Alliance could be in a very influential position holding the balance of power after the next general election. The Alliance, therefore, should publicly state their position on whether they would support a Fine Gael or Fianna Fail led government after the next election (and it is up to the media to ask and get that answer).

If the Reform Alliance answers that question with ‘that will depend on the situation that we face at that point in time and it will require major commitment to radical reform by those parties’ (ie, yes of course we will enter government with either Fine Gael or Fianna Fail), or ‘we have not determined our position on that yet’ (ie, yes of course) or, the straightforward honest answer of ‘yes of course’, then they are clearly not for any serious level of reform of our political or economic system. This is because both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have been in power since the foundation of the State and have clearly demonstrated that they are unwilling and unable to implement radical reforms, once in government, that would strengthen democracy and benefit the majority of people in the country.

What should we expect?

The policies of these former Fine Gael TDs makes it clear that if a new party emerges from the Reform Alliance its policies will most closely match those of the old Progressive Democrats Party. The Alliance’s policies, therefore, can be classed as right-wing on economic issues, conservative on many social issues, and pro a European Union – that economic and political superpower.

The media should be much more forthright in asking them (and ensure they provide an answer) on the detail on the type of reform the Alliance are proposing, and whether this is just another exercise in spin and PR politics that is becoming endemic in our political system.

Radical reforms that would benefit the majority of Irish people would include calling for an end to austerity and a government-funded stimulus of job creation expanding the number of teachers, guards and nurses, as well as building social housing and upgrading hospitals. They would include a reversal of the decision to introduce water charges and ruling-out future privatisation of Irish water; an increase in the minimum wage and support for worker’s rights; calling on the ECB to cancel the illegitimate Anglo Bonds and threaten default; and a write-off of mortgage debt of distressed borrowers in their family home.

It would also include an imposition of income equality measures such as a cap on bankers and higher earners’ pay, higher taxation on wealth, and a financial transaction tax to be introduced on markets. But we haven’t heard mention of any of these policies from the Reform Alliance TDs.

Therefore, there is no evidence to back up the claims of Lucinda and the other Alliance TDs that the Reform Alliance is about creating a ‘new politics’ and offers ‘radical’ and ‘substantial’ differences in policy from that what already is presented by Fine Gael or Fianna Fail (or even Labour at this stage). But watch how the Alliance spokespeople keep their policies vague, general and all-encompassing in the run up to the next general election. They will talk of ‘change’, ‘honesty’, and ‘accountability’, but in reality this is the PDs being revived in another form, and in time, could become even more extreme.

This is because the economic policies espoused by the TDs involved in the Reform Alliance caused the crisis and won’t get us out of it. They will in fact, as has already been proven in the austerity budgets they have voted for, worsen inequality and poverty.

Public anger

Lucinda and her Reform Alliance followers are politically astute, and just like the recent move of Colm Keaveny, they are prepared to do whatever it takes to get re-elected even if that means contradicting their previous policies. They know that the anger amongst the public will be seen in the coming elections and, therefore, they want to present themselves as something different from the Government. They are likely to gain further momentum given their access to resources, money, PR companies and a cheerleading media, particularly the right wing commentariat.

It is interesting to see how the Reform Alliance and Lucinda are fawned over by the media and promoted in contrast to the treatment of the Left TDs such as the United Left Alliance, who are often jeered and ridiculed. This is because the Reform Alliance is clearly on the side of the upper middle class and elite establishment, those who favour a capitalist Ireland, where everyone knows their place, and where, ultimately, the status quo is maintained.

In responding to the widespread public anger and desire for real reforming politics, the Reform Alliance have, however, highlighted what the Left should be doing. The Left, including the ULA parties and Left wing independent TDs should put aside their differences and get together to form a movement that could offer some real radical reform that would benefit the majority of Irish people, particularly the vulnerable, unemployed, youth and working classes.

Rory Hearne

Last night I went in search of party political manifestos.  Given that we have long known an election was coming, I thought that every party would have had their manifesto prepared for their campaign launch and it would be relatively straightforward to download them from their websites.  Some hope.  After much hunting, I didn’t find a single one!  If a party can’t even have a manifesto ready for an election campaign that they have long known was coming, what hope have we of them running the country properly?

But I digress.  What I wanted to look up was each party’s housing and planning policies.

Fine Gael’s website has a ‘five point plan to recovery’ covers jobs, budget, health, public sector and politics.  In its policy document section it has a piece on management companies and another on repossession of the family home.  That’s it.

The Labour Party have three sections on policy – policy for jobs, policy for reform, policy for fairness.  None of them contain policy documents focusing centrally on housing or planning.  There is no manifesto to download as yet.

Fianna Fail state: ‘We will be launching our plan in the coming days. Please check back later to find out more.’  Cunningly it has no links to any policy document or to a manifesto!

The Green Party states: ‘Over the next four weeks, the Green Party will be outlining its plans to renew Ireland.   All of our policy documents and manifesto will be published here.’   On their main site they detail policies in a number areas, including housing in outline form.

Sinn Fein have a ten point plan for jobs and outlines of policy initiatives across a number of areas.  In outline form they list a number of housing policy ideas.

So beyond the fact none of them have published manifestos as yet, and in terms of what they are presnetly focusing on, why isn’t housing and planning seen as a prime election issue – or at least a second-tier issue after jobs, the economy and political reform, that is worthy of some mention?

Many people are homeless, there are more than 120,000 households on the social housing waiting list, and a large of stock of social housing needs renewal due to its poor state. Over 90,000 households are in mortgage arrears, 36,000 of which are over 90 days in arrears. There are over 78,000 households (over 200,000 people) living in the 2,846 unfinished housing estates in the country, suffering issues of health and safety, anti-social behaviour, unfinished utilities, defunct management companies, and negative equity.  Given some overlap in the households facing these issues, there are upwards of 250,000 households – 700,000 people – facing serious housing problems that need redress.  That’s a large constituency of voters.

And yet, no political party has set out a full and comprehensive set of policies on housing issues, beyond some basic outline statements.  For anyone with a pressing housing issue, whether it’s the threat of repossession, homelessness, poor quality or inappropriate housing, or living with unfinished developments, they want to know in specific terms how any new government is going to address the various housing issues they face on a daily basis.

The catastrophic failure of the planning system helped get us into the mess we’re in.  And all through the bust local authorities continued to zone unneeded and inappropriate land and award planning permissions.  A good, robust planning system will help us get out the crisis by having sensible and coordinated development in the future that is mindful of the economic, social and environmental costs of laissez faire and poorly regulated planning.  Bad planning affects everyone.  It is vital that reform of the planning system is undertaken to provide a system fit for purpose in the 21st century.

No political party has set out a full and comprehensive set of policies on planning.  To me this extremely worrying.  It’s as if planning is disconnected from development, recovery and growth – that things don’t need to be planned.  It certainly was disconnected during the boom, hence the bust.  And it has continued to be through the bust so far.

What is extremely troubling is that all parties are heading into this election without comprehensive policies set out in relation to critical aspects economic recovery and everyday life – planning and housing.  And I do mean comprehensive policies – concrete actions and programmes that will address specific issues – not soundbites.  Perhaps in the coming days the parties might set these out, but I’m not holding my breath.  My sense is they’re not going to be able to get beyond soundbites, if they manage those.

Rob Kitchin