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

At a recent “One City, One people” conference hosted by Dublin City Council, Ash Amin argued against the politics of catastrophe and for the politics of hope.  His words struck a chord with many of those present.  It’s probably fair to say that large numbers of us are increasingly despairing about the unrelenting and hope sapping quality of much of the current media coverage.  Good news stories are few and far between.   But there are many stories out there that demonstrate the capacity of people to act in creative ways, to be resilient and to make good things happen in their localities.

Last week I attended the Wexford Opera festival, which has been running every year since its foundation in 1951. What an imaginative leap for a small town in Ireland to come up with the idea of staging opera, recitals and concerts over a two week autumnal period.  Undoubtedly, the originators were considered half mad at a time in Ireland when we were still shrouded in De Valera’s insularity. Over the years the festival has garnered loyal audiences and festival goers come from all over the world.  The festival  put Wexford on the international cultural map long before sociologists began writing about the potential of culture to re-invent urban economies.  During the weeks of the festival the town of Wexford is alive with people. Restaurants and bars are buzzing, established galleries show a wide range of contemporary art and “flash” art galleries pop up everywhere.  Wexford happens because of the blend of state support, private philanthropy and the efforts put in by hundreds of volunteers from within the local community.  This partnership has been working for the last 59 years and looks set to continue into the future. It is a template of excellence and a model of how a good idea with the right support can turn into something with economic, cultural and social value.

Elsewhere, another initiative albeit on a smaller scale, demonstrates the dividends to be reaped from people working together creatively in their local context.  On Sunday, October 31 the Dublin Mountain Partnership (DMP) which was established to improve the recreational experience for users of lands in the Dublin mountains opened a new trail 43km long which stretches from Shankill in the East of the City to Tallaght in the West threading through some of the most spectacular scenery in the East of the country.  Coillite has worked alongside the local councils and with a team of volunteer rangers to develop this amenity which is literally on the doorstep of many of Dublin’s newest suburbs.  Volunteer rangers act in a stewardship role and patrol the mountains at weekends offering information and advice as well as assisting in emergencies. They also lead walks and special activities for newcomers to the hills. See www.dublinmountains.ie.  The DMP also operates buses from the Luas at Tallaght and Sandyford to the mountains.  So, if you’ve had enough of the gloom and doom during the week do yourself a favour and go climb a mountain at the weekend.

Mary Corcoran

Claiming our Future, a novel civil society “think in” took place at the RDS on Saturday October 30th, 2010   There was a tremendous buzz in the Industries Hall from 9 am that morning as 1,000 people arrived to take their places at one of the 100 roundtables set up in the hall.  Throughout the day each table debated the kind of values we want to underpin our society; the priority that should be accorded to a range of policy objectives and the sorts of initiatives and actions that could be taken to achieve the agreed objectives. Using a software package (which only caused a few hiccups on the day!) every table was able to exercise their votes, and all the votes were aggregated to come up with an overall, consensual result. For details on the deliberative process and the outcomes see the claimingourfuture.ie website.

The most innovative aspect of the proceedings was the emphasis of deliberative engagement.  Normally at a 1,000 people conference it is the keynote speakers that get the air time and the audience simply act as spectators with limited opportunity for questions.  Here, there were no keynote speakers or experts telling us how it is.  At each table we drew on each others views and expertise to arrive at an agreed view and feed it back to all the other tables.  At my table there were a couple of civil servants, a retired teacher and a serving teacher, a recently unemployed journalist, a Filipino  woman who is a domestic worker, and an arts/cultural worker. The various sessions were bookmarked by fantastic musical acts including Mary Coughlan,  the Miracle Makers rappers and the Gloria choir.  The day was creative and  invigorating.  It gave people the sense that there was a substantial constituency out there who shared their own disenchantment with the direction taken by the government during the past decade.  The event made it possible to really believe in a politics of hope over a politics of catastrophe. If you are interested in finding out more about Claiming Our Future or you have any ideas to contribute on how the country can be renewed click here.

Mary Corcoran