Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
Over dinner recently with one of the thinkers of the Irish free market right (alright, it was Cormac Lucey) the subject turned to the prospects of a genuinely pro-free market party.
I’m sceptical. After all, Renua with its flat tax proposals made a pitch for the low-tax voter, and crashed faster than a moderate Republican presidential candidate.
Why didn’t it work? Here was a party with a talented party leader in Lucinda Creighton, a parliamentary base with three outgoing TDs, and a clear pitch. All three lost their seats. Did it confirm that there is simply no significant free market vote in Ireland?
Not quite. Renua was tarred from the very start with the whole pro-life thing, given the reasons why Lucinda and the others left Fine Gael. On top of that, unlike the US and UK, it’s not absolutely vital for broad church coalitions to exist in Irish parties. Large numbers of pro-low tax voters are also pro-choice voters, and were repelled by the perception that Renua was the parliamentary wing of the John Charles McQuaid Sub-Committee for the Saving of Souls.
But it’s not just that free market voters were happy with the establishment parties. Nor, by the way, is it true, as many claim, that Irish voters aren’t ideological. The fact that we have never elected a socialist or social democrat-led government isn’t an accident. This is a small c conservative country with a suspicion of economic change and a murderous Bull McCabe obsession with the right to private property.
The Irish are ideological, but won’t admit it. Everybody claims to be middle of the road or liberal. Liberal being shorthand for “fairness”, and fairness being shorthand for “spend money on things I want”. Few people openly identify as conservative in an ideological sense, and being called right-wing is regarded as an insult. Yet, especially in our attitudes to property (where’s my shotgun?), taxes (for other people) and regulation (also for other people) large numbers of Irish people could easily find themselves in the non-Praise Jesus! wing of the US Republican Party. We just won’t admit it.
It begs a question: if there is a classic right-wing vote out there, why isn’t in translated into openly right-wing votes on polling day? Yes, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael are centre-right and still dominate Irish politics. But the answer is in the description: centre-right. Both parties, with their centrist tendencies, are firmly anchored to the “there’s a few quid for yourself” approach to public spending to grease the wheels of popularity. But why aren’t economically right-wing voters voting for right-wing candidates?
The answer to that, I suspect, is that in Ireland geography trumps ideology. Our electoral system is primarily geographically based, and those voters who vote with a free market bias are essentially diluted by the greater majority of voters who cast their first preferences For The Area. It’s why Fine Gael can get working class votes and why Richard Boyd Barrett picks up first preferences from the yachting crowd in Dun Laoghaire. It’s all about the area, and in the area, it’s all about delivery. Banging on about the flat tax on the doorstep just doesn’t compete with getting the stop for the 46A moved closer to your granny’s house because her knee is giving her terrible gip. The 46A is real: the flat tax is a graph. It’s not that most voters aren’t interested, or don’t understand. It just doesn’t compete compared to getting that Aldi stopped or getting a grant for the local GAA’s roof. Let someone else worry about the flat taxes: we’re worried about the flat roof.
But here’s a thought. Supposing you got small businessmen from all over the country into a room. Or farmers. Or trades unionists. Yes, they’d still talk about local experiences, but surely the talk would turn to the big national issues that affect business or farmers? They will discuss the flat tax and public spending and The Big Picture, because in that format, it’s the national issues which are the common factor, as opposed to geography.
This is relevant because last week the Seanad passed the second stage of the reform bill to allow every citizen a vote on one of the vocational panels. Every citizen will have a right to vote in a national Seanad constituency representing, broadly speaking, business, labour, agricultural, cultural or administrative interests. In other words, the aforementioned businessmen in a room get to elect their senators.
In such a scenario, where geographical interests are lessened (never abolished. This is Ireland) it’s not impossible to imagine a party like New Zealand’s Association of Consumers and Taxpayers (ACT-NZ) being formed just to contest for two or three seats on the industrial and commercial panel. Same with a Rural or Farmers Party on the agricultural panel. Or a Young People’s Party on the educational and cultural panel.
Indeed, a new Seanad crammed full of senators elected by interest groups across the land could soon draw media attention away from the Dail.
It’s not impossible that a new Seanad could end up debating the real meat of national issues, with senators aware that their electors live in every parish, united by issue and interest as opposed to place.
Still, that would leave the Dail to provide the vegetables.