I know plenty about what we're fighting against. But what are we fighting for? The inequality in Irish society right now doesn't just have its roots in the ineptitude and corruption of the banking sector, cavalier Fianna Fáil governments, the property bubble and subsequent housing market collapse, the global financial crash and the very specific Irish economic devastation, and guaranteeing banks over citizens. Its roots are also in the 2011 general election, when many Irish people voted Anything But Fianna Fáil, propelling Fine Gael and Labour into power. The legacy of that election and subsequent government is seen in the devastation of the Labour Party and a Fine Gael minority government that is both bungling and stagnant. But what we’re also dealing with are the consequences of Fine Gael’s political ideologies, where everything that isn’t nailed down is sold off, where a certain economic class is given plenty of treats while poorer individuals suffer, and where the ruling party seems to experience a far different version of society than the rest of us living in it.
It serves the status quo well for people to disconnect from national and local politics, and it’s hard not to. You read and watch the news and look at who’s in charge and wonder why they can’t get their shit together, why so few of these people come across as smart, competent, engaging, honest, why can’t you relate to them. You wonder where the ideas are.
Who is going into politics? The sons and daughters of politicians? The political anoraks who care about the process, not the vocation? Those who obsess over the partisan callings of the youth wings of existing political parties until they are subsumed into the party machine, graduating through local politics until those machines deem them worthy to compete in national elections? Does that speak of vision, of ideals, or of ideas? No. It merely repeats a process that is as broken as it is uninspiring.
In some ways, the result of this jaded, elitist process is political power leaking from the party system. The power starts to emerge from the bottom up, and is not granted by the top down. The power comes to the streets. It emerges from a small group of activists who saw marriage equality as an achievable goal. It emerges from transgender rights activists lobbying for a Gender Recognition Act. It emerges from water charges becoming something to fight as both a utility bill and a symbol of how the cost of austerity was constantly being lumped on to citizens. It emerges from Home Sweet Home taking over a NAMA building to contest the injustice of homelessness. It emerges from organisations such as Equate challenging the religiosity of our education system.
Ultimately, many of these battles end up being subsumed into the political machine because they cannot be ignored. Protest, organising, campaigning and lobbying tend to have an impact when they go overground. It shouldn’t be the job of individuals and small groups to highlight and in many cases do the work that our politicians should be doing. Maybe we need to be the politicians too.
It is unrealistic to ask individuals and small groups of people to change everything at once. But specific goals can be achieved by highly motivated and dedicated people. In the absence of political leadership, what becomes so obvious is that change will continue be made in Ireland by those who care about their communities. Ireland is at an advantage because it is a small country. Change can be affected more quickly. Once upon a time, the idea of quotas for female candidates in elections in Ireland was a fringe concern. Now look at the success of quotas in the 2016 election, and how that resulted in more women than ever before becoming TDs, a 40% increase within one election cycle. We can lead and change and be radical in ways that countries with much larger populations and much bigger problems and much more fragmented societies cannot.
But none of this matters unless there is structural change. If we do not change how our political system looks, acts, thinks and functions, then we will forever be expecting individuals and small groups outside of this system to battle the status quo. If we change the status quo itself, then the status quo will become change itself. It’s frustrating to not have something to vote for. It’s frustrating that at a time when there is so much appetite for political alternatives - and you only have to look at the success of independent politicians to see that - that no new parties have successfully come to the fore, besides the small Social Democrats. It’s frustrating that a much broader group of left and centre-left politicians, and prospective politicians, are seemingly unable to come together and provide a genuine alternative for voters. It’s frustrating that the Labour Party bore the brunt of the ire of voters in 2016, but that’s what happens to smaller parties in coalition governments, and it’s also what happens when a party’s leadership looks just like the rest of the other parties’ leaderships for so long. It’s frustrating that even in the aftermath of the marriage referendum, a once in a generation moment, that a political movement could not capitalise on the energy and desire for change that vote signified. But maybe it can.
If you think you have good ideas and want to serve your community, run in the local elections. They are in 2019. Fight the pervasive conservatism embedded in Irish politics. Fight that lack of imagination with ideas. Fight partisan concerns with unity. Do the Jo Cox stress test - is there more that unites us than divides us? If so, fight to work together. Fight political parties who care more about economy than society. Fight the fallacy about how a multi-faceted housing crisis can be solved by the market when it can be solved by the State taking responsibility for providing its people with homes. Fight the spin and obfuscation. Fight the idea that politics is complicated or just for dudes in suits.
Here is something to vote for: equality, a political movement that comes together with equality as the baseline for every policy. Equality in the healthcare system, in housing, in education, in job creation, in economics, in human rights. If every piece of policy, every decision, every proposal asked questions of equality first, how much more sense would that make? If we put equality first, then we begin to see what the priorities are in a society.
Equality is a great clarifier. From homeless families to children languishing on hospital waiting lists, escalating rents to school admission policies with religious biases, abortion rights to billion-euro companies paying hardly any tax, the gender pay gap to student fees - run an equality test across these issues and the solutions become obvious. Equality first.