Voters have taken a bold gamble on normality

Fintan O’Toole

The Irish Times, 11th February 2020

The election result is so sensational that it is easy to miss what is at the heart of it: a desire for normality. Like the American military spokesman in Vietnam who explained that they had destroyed a village in order to save it, voters have destroyed the familiar political system in an attempt to make it ordinary. They have confronted the two great anomalies of Irish politics: the half-in/half-out status of Sinn Féin and the duopoly of the Civil War parties. They have decided to get rid of both of them.

In the last week of the campaign, many politicians and commentators wasted their breath warning voters that Sinn Féin is not a normal political party. This was like telling them that it may rain in the west of Ireland. Of course Sinn Féin isn’t a normal political party – it has elements in its make-up of both cult and conspiracy. But Ireland isn’t a normal western European democracy. The island is still in recovery from a horrendous 30-year conflict in which Sinn Féin existed primarily as a support group for one of the world’s cruellest terrorist organisations.

During that conflict, those of us who were opposed to the IRA were continually telling Sinn Féin to abandon mass murder as a political strategy and to pursue its aims by fighting elections instead. The acceptance of that invitation has uncomfortable but unavoidable consequences: you are bringing into your democracy people who have committed or supported atrocities or who remain ambivalent about them. This is not normal. Our very particular recent history has created a very particular reality. We have had an anomaly for 20 years: Sinn Féin both inside and outside the functioning of our democracy.

Can you form a government?

And, quite simply, the voters have decided to end the anomaly. They have made the judgment that the State is strong enough to fully absorb a party that once conspired to overthrow it. (This is not just the judgment of those who voted for Sinn Féin – it is that of the 51 per cent who said in the exit poll that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were wrong to rule out going into government with Sinn Féin.) Behind the radical gesture, there is actually a vote of confidence in the basic institutions of the State. Voters trust that Irish democracy will capture Sinn Féin, not the other way around.

Extraordinary duopoly

The second thing that is not normal about Irish democracy is the extraordinary duopoly of two identical centre-right parties. It is a belt-and-braces system for political continuity and it was, in its own terms, astonishingly successful. But the crash of 2008 and the consequent austerity programme have destroyed its prestige and broken its power. Voters have been trying in various ways ever since to find a way to put this old system out of its misery. When nobody else could manage it, they have brought in Sinn Féin, the perceived outsiders, to do the job. But we must remember that the job they are doing is one of ending, not of creating, a freakish system. (There is, admittedly, an irony at work: Ireland is finally evolving a much more “European” left/right divide just at the point when the rise of populism is muddling that old divide in much of Europe.)

The reason voters have opted to end the duopoly is also to do with ideas of normality. Between them, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have managed to normalise levels of homelessness and housing insecurity that would previously have seemed outrageous. They have normalised the idea that we can have one of the most expensive health systems in the world (whose cost to taxpayers and insurance policy holders will reach about €25 billion in the lifetime of the next government) and yet deny people access to it when they need it. They have normalised a completely unsustainable, car-dependent and carbon-heavy commuter economy. And voters are saying: hang on, none of that is normal. Other countries at similar levels of economic development can do better – why can’t we?

European standards

The terrible secret of the Irish has always been that we don’t want to be colourful, crazy, exceptional, anomalous people. We want to be ordinary. That’s why we have emigrated in our millions – to flee from our own strange and irregular circumstances. Gradually, Ireland has in fact been achieving this bliss of privileged European ordinariness. And what we are seeing now is the political system struggling to catch up with the transformation of a tragical and eccentric place into a post-Troubles, well-to-do society whose citizens expect what they perceive to be realistically achievable Western European standards.

Voters have taken the two bits of that system that are rooted in violence and trauma – the Civil War tribes of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and the child of the Troubles that is Sinn Féin – and tried to reshape them as aspects of a more typical, peaceful democracy, one that might be capable of actually dealing with domestic policy crises. It is a bold gamble on the possibility of becoming settled and mundane. Oscar Wilde said he could resist anything except temptation. We will now see whether it is equally true that the Irish political system can adapt to anything except normality.