Irish General Election 2020 – vote early; vote often

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Ireland has a general election  on Saturday, February 8th. This will be the first time since I have been able to vote that I have missed one. Instead I shall be in Rome on a holiday I booked six months ago, long before the vote was a serious consideration. As Ireland only allows postal voting under very strict criteria – which I don’t meet – my choice is to either cancel my first trip to the Eternal City or to abstain. Abstention is my decision.

I don’t feel too guilty about this as it makes up for the time I voted illegally in the marriage equality referendum in Ireland in May 2015. At that time I had been living in Amsterdam for fifteen years. You can only vote if you are physically present in the country on election date. In addition if you have been non-resident in the country for more than two years then you are no longer entitled to vote in Irish elections – even if you make yourself present in the country. I think the reasoning behind these draconian restrictions is because there are so many Irish people who are resident abroad, and those who by virtue of their ancestry would be entitled to vote, then the situation could arise where the government could be decided by people abroad who would not be subject to that governance.

However unless you take your name off the voting register, your voting card will appear in the post at your registered address come election time. I had never deregistered. My voting card which permitted me to cast my vote on whether gay adults had the same civil right to enter the legal contract of civil marriage, was sent to the Mammy’s house. Naturally I was outraged that such a vote was even taking place. The idea that minority civil rights could be subject to a popularity contest was – and remains – grotesque. This was never a suitable subject for public vote – it was a matter for government legislation. Successive coalition governments led by Fianna Fail (centre right) and the Greens; Fine Gael (centre right and almost an exact facsimile of Fianna Fail) and Labour claimed that same sex marriage was unconstitutional, despite divergent legal opinion on the matter. A referendum was allegedly needed to fix this. In a surprise result Ireland voted overwhelmingly to allow same sex marriage, which I take as an endorsement of the Irish people – but not the Fine Gael / Labour government which embarrassed itself through its cowardice on this subject.

So offended was I, that my civil rights as a citizen were a matter for a popularity contest, I decided that voting restrictions would be ignored in this instance. I was planning to move back to Ireland later that year. If Ireland voted ‘no’ then I wouldn’t be willing to do so. So I arrived home two days before the vote, spent the day before knocking on people’s doors with the ‘Marriage equality Limerick’ group, and cast my vote – while holding my nose when doing so. Victory was ours.

This February’s General election is a less emotive and far more depressing affair. Under the leadership of Leo Varadkar, the Fine Gael party has been running a minority government since 2016. They are propped up by a number of independent TDs and have a  toxic ‘confidence and supply’ agreement with the Fianna Fail party.

I could never vote for Fianna Fail as that is the party that oversaw the economic collapse of the country in 2008, and who have failed in their democratic duty by abstaining from its political responsibility to serve as an opposition since 2016. Its whines that Ireland needed stable government while Brexit discussions were happening ring hollow. Stable government in the form of an actual coalition where both parties would be held accountable for decisions made, would have offered stable government. Fianna Fail has always put party before country since the foundation of the state however, so its craven opportunism is typical. They don’t want to be blamed for any government shortcomings by entering an actual coalition so they sat on the side-lines shouting, but doing nothing since 2016 – although they have signed off on every budget so cannot pretend not to bear responsibility for the housing and health situation.

On the other hand I could not vote for Fine Gael. This party has been in power since 2011. For the past eighteen quarters, the homeless figures in the state have risen. Using only three of the thirteen criteria used by countries like Finland to define homelessness, the Irish figures are through the roof. The housing catastrophe engulfing the state will never be fixed while this party abdicates its responsibilities to the forces of the market. Varadkar’s claims that 21,000 new homes were built last year, and 22,000 will be built this year is evidence that the government is addressing the crisis is contemptible; when estimates that at least 35,000 houses per year are needed to meet demand. Meanwhile the University Hospital in Limerick (and hospitals all over the country) looks like something in a war zone, with hundreds of sick people sitting in chairs, and lying on trolleys in hospital corridors for days while waiting for a bed.

All the government has is plans, and reports. Nothing meaningful has been done to address the root cause of these disasters. Fianna Fail and Fine Gael want to run an economy not a society. Consistent failure should not be rewarded.

Originally I had plans to vote for the Social Democrats as they seemed compatible with my worldview, and not tainted by association with Fianna Fail and Fine Gael like the Labour Party. That would no longer have been possible as their candidate in my Dublin Central constituency – Gary Gannon – voted last year as a Dublin City councillor to gift public land – O’Devaney Gardens – to a vulture capital fund Bartra Capital, to build houses for private profit. He then doubled down in defence of this appalling betrayal of the people who voted for him. I’ll probably vote for this party in future, but Gannon won’t be getting another vote from me like he got my number 1 in the 2016 election. Public houses on public land is a non-negotiable. Giving state land to private companies for free is unforgiveable.

The Greens would have been a possibility I suppose but I am not clear exactly who they are and what they stand for, other than the touchy-feelz about the environment. There does not seem to be any united message there.

Which brings me to Sinn Fein. Long condemned by the media in Ireland (which is almost universally in favour of either cheek of the Fine Gael/Fianna Fail arse) for its association with the Troubles in the North, and for being the political wing of the IRA; the party has lately been growing in appeal for me. Fianna Fail and Fine Gael both also have their origins in violent revolt a century ago (and the fascist ‘Blueshirts’ were a founding component of the Fine Gael party), so Sinn Fein’s connection with conflict is nothing new in Ireland – it’s simply more recent. Some of its TDs are excellent – Pearse Doherty their finance spokesman was brilliant in his dealings with the insurance cartel in Ireland. Meanwhile former Fine Gael TD Maria Bailey – on advice from Fine Gael minister Josepha Madigan – tried to defraud thousands from a hotel when she fell off a swing while holding booze in both hands. Eoin O’Broin – the Sinn Fein housing spokesman has some actual ideas to address the housing catastrophe. Whether these will work or not is up for discussion.  Meanwhile Fine Gael’s dara Murphy is openly stealing from the state with his party leader’s knowledge and approval. Fine Gael’s abject, dismal and continuing failure to deal with the housing crisis is undeniable. The Sinn Fein party leader Mary-Lou McDonald is my local TD and she seems like a capable person.

Fianna Fail and Fine Gael are stale, pale, old, and useless, with absolutely no ambition to fix the housing and health crises. One or the other of these woeful parties has been in power since the foundation of the state. It depresses me to think that this could never change.

I never thought I would say this, but if I had a vote I’d vote for Sinn Fein. This would be a ‘time to try something new’ vote.

I won’t however – instead I will be in Rome.

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