“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” The social contract is broken, yet the electorate appears to believe it can be fixed by reelecting those who helped break it

Anna Kavanagh

I threw my hat into the ring in the 2020 general election as a mother, very concerned about the prospects for our children’s future given that they are the first generation since the foundation of the state that will end up worse off than the generation gone before them. I pointed out that they are the first generation where the majority will probably end up renting for the rest of their lives.

I also presented strong views on a wide range of other issues including evictions, homelessness, economic inequality and the degradation of our environment.

I am well known across the constituency of Longford Westmeath because of my activism on environmental issues, evictions and homelessness. I’m also known in music circles as a result of presenting a trad music programme on community radio. I’m not telling you this to blow my own trumpet, but merely to let you see that I was not an unknown entity coming before the electorate.

I was given equal access to the local radio stations as the other candidates, the same coverage in the local papers and with a following of 35,000 on social media I had no difficulty in getting my message across.

As I journeyed to every corner of the constituency, people told me that they shared my views and principles but their vote was promised to a sitting TD or Councillor who had done a favour for either them or a family member.

I discovered that clientelism is alive and kicking in Ireland.

It seems to me that politicians use the problems they have created in areas like housing and health to bestow favours on those who go cap-in-hand to them seeking to jump the queue for a hospital bed or social housing and in return they are rewarded with votes.

It felt to me that the electorate, for the most part fail to grasp the bigger picture beyond their own immediate needs.

I got 334 first preference votes (0.5% share) and was eliminated on the fourth count.

My vote was a third of the vote received by James Reynolds the deputy leader of the National Party who ran mainly on a platform of ridding the country of refugees and immigrants. James got 983 first preference votes and was eliminated on the 6th count.

If his name sounds familiar to you, it may be because he made the news headlines recently in his attempt to unseat Justin Barrett, the party leader which involved reports to the Gardaí about missing gold bullion.

Dublin-born Sorcha Clarke relatively unknown outside of her political base in Mullingar who failed in her attempt to be elected to Westmeath County in 2019 topped the poll for Sinn Féin with 11,848 first preference votes and was elected on the first count having received a 21% share.

Robert Troy took the second seat for Fianna Fáil with 9,331 first preference votes (16.5% share).

Troy subsequently resigned from his ministerial position following revelations published by The Ditch, saying he made genuine errors with his statutory declaration in the Dáil Register of Members Interests and said he would not apologise for being a landlord.

Peter Burke took the third seat for Fine Gael with 6617 first preference votes (11.7% share).

Burke who was appointed Junior Housing Minister in 2020 controversially defended the government’s housing policy and dealings with cuckoo funds snapping up homes from developers before they can hit the market and also targeting second-hand homes and not just new builds, in a Claire Byrne Live TV debate with first time buyers in 2021.

From the audience, Anita shared her experience, saying it broke her heart to see her 30-year-old son give up on buying a home after trying to save up for several years.

She slammed reports that week of an investment firm that bought an entire estate of Dublin houses in order to rent them out with prices beginning at €1,975 a month.

Claire Byrne challenged Burke to ‘admit that your party created the conditions for this to happen’.

Finally, Fianna Fáil Councillor, Joe Flaherty took the fourth and final seat with 7,766 first preference votes (13.6% share). Joe, whom I got to know personally through his attempts to find accommodation for a homeless Traveller family that approached me, is a genuinely empathetic and caring man in my experience of him. It’s doubtful if he would be ever elected without the Fianna Fáil party machine.

A point to note here is that the four elected TDs had their election expenses reimbursed as did Micheál Carrigy who failed to take a second seat for Fine Gael but was subsequently elected to the Seanad.

I lost my deposit but gained an invaluable wealth of knowledge on how our political system and so called democracy operates.

I can predict with confidence that if there was an election held in the morning, it would deliver much the same outcome in my constituency as it did in 2020.

A politician caught in the headwind of a political storm soon discovers that it blows over quickly. Just ask Michael Lowry.

Why have I gone into such detail about my personal experience of the 2020 general election?

The answer to that question lies in the fact that all politics is local and what happens in Longford-Westmeath is a microcosm of what happens nationally.

An opinion poll published in today’s Sunday Independent shows Micheál Martin with the highest approval rating (43%) ahead of Mary Lou McDonald (42%).

The poll shows voters now favour a Sinn Féin-led left-wing government (45pc, up three points), explicitly excluding Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, over the current government (37pc, down three points in a month) but a Sinn Féin- Fianna Fáil alternative (43pc, up a point) is gaining traction.

There’s a strong possibility that Fine Gael might find itself a Junior partner in a Fianna Fáil led government under Martin who says he will lead the party into the next election.

The view that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael could form the next government is strengthened by a report in the Mail on Sunday by John Drennan.

In an exclusive interview with the MoS, Social Democrats leader

Holly Cairns failed to rule out going into coalition with Fine Gael after the next general election and vehemently denied that her party will merge with Labour. Cairns is third in the Sunday Independent poll on approval ratings at 41% although support for her party is down a percentage point to 5%.

How can this be the expected outcome given the headlines in today’s papers showing Minister Darragh O’Brien presiding over record numbers of homeless children; Minister Stephen Donnelly presiding over “bedlam” in hospitals with a record number of 900 on trolleys ahead of the usual winter surge despite a potential €2bn budget overrun and also the scandal of children waiting years for vital spinal operations that is “completely and utterly out of step with what happens in the rest of Europe in terms of chronic delay,” according to Senator Tom Clonan; Minister Helen McEntee presiding over a breakdown of discipline in the prisons where some officers are known by the government to be very heavy handed as a result of consuming alcohol on duty according to a report by Michael O’Farrell in the MoS and she is giving full backing to Garda Commissioner Drew Harris despite the breakdown in the relationship between him and his 14,000 rank-and-file Gardai, described “as Baltic, not to say as bitter, as that between good old King Henry VIII and his many wives,” according to Ger Colleran in an opinion piece in the MoS who goes on to say: “Henry’s carry-on delivered up two heads on the executioner’s block; this escalating Garda revolt is likely to produce one, unless everybody takes a breather.”

Everything that I have cited is reported in today’s papers.

Behind each of these reports is untold suffering, hardship and pain experienced by hundreds of thousands of people the length and breadth of the country. Yet the signals are that the electorate will return Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to government in some shape or form come the next election despite the fact that there’s now a total of twenty five political parties registered in the country.

In yesterday’s Irish Examiner Gareth O’Callaghan claims the “far-right is a growing threat as general election looms” and blames the government’s failed policy on immigration for this.

“Hotels and refugee accommodation have become a source of anger for this movement.

In every Irish town, the local hotel is a social magnet, a community hub.

Christenings, communions, debs nights, weddings, funerals, sports celebrations, business meetings, social clubs, Sunday carveries, Christmas parties — all the important occasions that bring a community together take place at the local hotel, where lifelong memories are made for generations of families.

But what if the hotel is suddenly off limits, and it becomes a vetoed residential centre for refugees?

More importantly, what if the community wasn’t consulted or asked how they feel about being deprived of this crucial hub that they’ve kept in business with their hard-earned wages?”

O’Callaghan says: “Government policy around housing refugees has had a major part to play in the rise of the far right.

It’s as though they have thrown away the rule book of how it should have been managed and things are getting worse.

Housing refugees on the Electric Picnic site, in a field in the middle of nowhere, is nothing short of an inhumane cop-out — a form of enforced isolation. And they call this governance?”

He concludes: “As the election looms, the light at the end of the tunnel for many who see our current politicians as simply feathering their own nests while ignoring the many crises that are destroying lives is someone who talks their talk, regardless of how unacceptable their behaviour towards immigrants might be….

Fine Gael can only hope that Fianna Fáil will pull them into their lifeboats in eighteen months’ time, something Micheál Martin might consider in an attempt to keep Sinn Féin out.

In just over a year’s time, both far-right activists who promise a better society but can’t elaborate on what that will look like, and our TDs whose heads appear to be stuck in the sand, will face the electorate.

It will be an election the likes of which we have never seen before.”

In a two-page spread today in the MoS, John Drennan profiles individually the plethora of twenty five political parties including those that have sprung up on both sides of the extreme political spectrum.

Aside from the parties already represented in the Dáil. he sees no prospect of any of the others gaining a seat in the next election.

There’s no mention of the Farmers Alliance who announced recently that they are forming a political party and fielding candidates in the next general election buoyed up by the recent success of the Dutch Farmers Party.

It seems to me that the multitude of political parties favours the big three parties in that it splinters the anti-government/anti establishment vote and attempts to get some of these smaller parties to agree on certain principles has been described as “trying to herd cats at a crossroads.”

At a remove from the government is the financial crisis threatening the  existence of the Peter McVerry Trust (PMVT).

Wavne O’Connor and Hugh O’Connell report in the Sunday Independent on how the “financial and governance issues has rocked the country’s most high-profile homelessness charity and prompted wider questions about the future of the sector.”

The Approved Housing Bodies Regulatory Body (AHBRB) announced on Tuesday that it had appointed inspectors to conduct a statutory investigation of the charity.

Almost all of its €50m+ income coming mostly from the state goes to pay its more than 500 staff.

It seems to me that the government has allowed homelessness to develop into a multimillion euro industry involving multiple NGOs, who employ thousands of people depending on homeless people for their survival.

The warehousing of homeless services, rather than direct state intervention is prolonging the homeless crisis rather than solving it and is symptomatic of a much wider malaise in the body politic.

In a wide ranging interview with Harry McGee in the weekend edition of the Irish Times, Fine Gael TD, and former minister, Charlie Flanagan, who is stepping down from politics at the next election says “I have said to colleagues that I would have more influence on Government policy if I was a middle-ranking official with an NGO than I have as a Government backbencher, and I regret that.”

The view that the country is now being run, not by elected representatives but by powerful unelected officials is repeated in reports today in the Sunday Independent and the MoS.

In an opinion piece headlined ‘𝑇ℎ𝑒 𝑞𝑢𝑎𝑛𝑔𝑜 𝑞𝑢𝑎𝑛𝑑𝑎𝑟y: 𝑤ℎ𝑜 𝑟𝑢𝑙𝑒𝑠 𝑢𝑠?’ Eilis 0’Hanlon writes: “This is what former Fianna Fáil minister Éamon Ó Cuív was talking about last month when, addressing the 33rd Desmond Greaves summer school, he observed the “quite staggering” rate at which “decision-making powers formerly exercised by the Oireachtas and the Government are now devolved to a web of agencies and external bodies”.

These bodies, Ó Cuív observed, are packed with “elite groups of senior and retired public servants, business people, academics, national media and ‘experts’” — overwhelmingly from Dublin, and certain areas of it at that.

The resulting democratic deficit is one of the most remarkable developments of politics in recent years — and yet it’s little talked about.”

Meanwhile in the MoS, central to the review of Tony Holohan’s autobiography by John Lee is the opinion that “Holohan never acknowledges the power he had without ever even being elected”.

This weekend, McGee, 0’Hanlon and Lee in three different newspapers pinpoint that we are ruled by a shadow government that’s unelected, apparently unaccountable and is downright unacceptable.

This phenomenon coupled with what Charlie Flanagan claims in his interview with Harry McGee “that the long-standing parliamentary approach to politics in Ireland has been upended and manipulated.”

Flanagan describes how: “In Leinster House if there is an issue of controversy, an all-party committee is set up.

The all-party committee is handpicked. It holds hearings. The hearings are preordained. The hearings are often one-sided. The report can be written before the committee actually sits, with the greatest of respect to all involved, and I’m speaking in general terms.”

Flanagan continues: “Then a report is published. The Taoiseach or Tánaiste is asked about it and say a committee has reported and we accept the recommendations. That is the way that legislation is being put forward.”

Flanagan expresses grave concerns about the lack of civility in Irish political discourse compared to his younger days when he and his father who was then a renowned ultra-conservative Fine Gael deputy were both able to take opposing positions in the 1980’s divorce referendum.

“I haven’t suddenly become a raving right-wing extremist bigot. But I do find that the plurality of voices long evident in Leinster House are not as evident now.

There is a dangerous intolerance of any view that is not being pushed by vociferous, well-financed and well-funded non-government organisations,” he says.

I began with my experience of election 2020 and I will end by suggesting that the outcome of the next general election will be for more of the same from a different configuration drawn from two of the three largest parties with one or two smaller parties thrown in for good measure giving the illusion of democracy whilst the real power will continue to lie with a handful of unelected state officials and NGOs.

What’s the chances of a “coalition of the willing” drawn from either side of the political spectrum coming together to agree a set of principles that has the power to rouse the electorate out of its Stockholm syndrome to dismantle the current status quo?

Anna Kavanagh is co-founder M-Compass Media