While on a recent tour of Ireland our bus was brought to a sudden halt on Wexford’s historic quayside by a large crowd protesting the proposed water taxes.
Having come from the protesting class myself, I recognized many old comrades. What surprised me was the new universality of the protesters: farmers, shopkeepers, civil servants – people from strong Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael stock - marched in solidarity with the great unwashed.
Although it seems ironic to charge anything for water in Ireland, given the annual level of rainfall, still water tariffs are common enough in developed countries. This proposed new taxation, however, appears to be the straw that has broken the Irish camel’s back.
Probably because it feeds into a longstanding fury over the mishandling of the country’s finances back in 2008; you might remember, the then coalition government led by Fianna Fáil’s Brian Cowen agreed to unconditionally guarantee the loans, deposits, bonds and other liabilities of all Irish banks. That the debts incurred turned out to be even more than expected was bad enough, but that government politicians were seen to be hand in hand with profligate bankers caused even more anger.
This led to a general election in 2011 where the once almighty Fianna Fáil Party was humiliated and its Dáil Éireann (parliament) representation severely reduced. The opposition Fine Gael Party was swept into power and entered a coalition with the Labour Party.
Two other forces gained in that election – Sinn Féin led by Gerry Adams, and a large group of independent deputies led by – well, no one.
Due to the ongoing bleak economic outlook and mass youth emigration, things have since gone from bad to worse for the three establishment parties, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour.
With a general election mandated before April 3, 2016, current polls show Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and Sinn Féin support each hovering around 20%. Amazingly, Sinn Féin has become the most popular party in the Republic. Independents, however, are drawing over 30% support, while Labour appears to be headed for oblivion with 6%.
One way or another the next election will be groundbreaking as Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael may be forced into coalition, thus finally bringing to a close the Civil War hostilities of almost a century ago. How stunning that a simple water tax might bring together what giants like Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera could not.
There’s even a possibility that Sinn Féin could gain enough seats to enter into coalition with either Fianna Fáil or a combination of independents. Hey, we could have our first Irish Echo columnist elected Taoiseach!
The ghost of de Valera must be raging around Dáil Éireann at the thought of his sacrosanct Fianna Fáil Party playing second fiddle to Gerry Adams and his ilk; but then, a movement will always trump a party and Sinn Féin, known for its financial probity, is becoming much more acceptable to an electorate disgusted by crony capitalism.
Though there are many Irish citizens who will never vote for the old guard leadership of Sinn Féin because of its association with the Troubles, yet there are many new faces in the party including Vice President, Mary Lou McDonald, who have broad national appeal, especially to the young.
One way or another, great change is coming, and about time. There’s a desire for a new beginning in Ireland, a feeling that the old ways haven’t worked, the old parties are indistinguishable, so throw all the bums out.
Emigration is finally being seen for what it is – a failure of a country’s institutions to look after its people. My own generation who fled in the 70’s and 80’s were part of the old solution – when you’ve wrecked the economy, open the floodgates and let the people go – some other country can deal with them.
But times have changed – unlike our parents the Celtic Tiger generation actually lived through a decade of prosperity. They didn’t raise their kids to mix cement or waitress in Sydney, Toronto or London.
That’s why change is inevitable. It will be an exciting year in Irish politics, though not a particularly happy one for the establishment parties.