Not to come across all Dominic Cummings, but to my view: to understand politics in the Republic of Ireland, you need to know your history. Not the Civil War, not 1916, not De Valera or any of the things that British Irish_Politics_Understanders generally log on to pop off about. You need to know about a man named Noel Browne, and the collapse of a fairly unremarkable coalition government in 1951.
Browne, a medical doctor before entering parliament, proposed a scheme known as the “Mother and Child Service” while serving as Minister for Health, which would have provided free non-means tested health care for mothers and children up to the age of 16. The scheme was crushed by pressure from the Catholic Church (primarily John Charles McQuaid, the Archbishop of Dublin and a co-author of the constitution), which feared socialism, loss of control over health care,, and a back door for birth control and abortion. Dr Browne, in his thirties at the time of the scandal, had a long career in the Dáil, but never again held ministerial office.
1951 was a long time ago, but in this scandal are visible common beats of Irish politics over the last 70 years: human suffering as a result of church control, and government antipathy to any substantial change. Free GP services for children under 6 were eventually implemented by another former doctor turned health minister – Leo Varadkar, in 2015. Varadkar’s successor in the health brief, Simon Harris, faced controversy in 2018 after plans to build a new national maternity hospital to be run by an order of nuns were met with widespread criticism.
Varadkar – who told GPs resistant to his free child health scheme to “cop on” and played a role in both the marriage equality referendum and the repeal of the 8th amendment – is the best Taoiseach of my lifetime. The undeniable positives of his tenure should not be dismissed; nor however, should we allow the poverty of low expectations to rule our politics. The dead hand of the church has been all but shaken off, and yet we still have a political discourse superglued to the centre, with absolutely no interest in tackling the material problems that face Irish people.
We’re very pleased that everyone now thinks we’re a Modern European Social Democracy. But being one of those doesn’t just mean ‘being in line with international human rights law’. Our public services remain ramshackle chimeras of public, private and church. It’s a kind of neoliberalism on steroids, because, unlike in the UK, there is no real base of a welfare state for the excesses of the market to eat away at slowly – the Celtic Tiger ran on fumes, and so does our current indentured servitude to big tech. For normal people, there is nothing underneath, bar a truly crippling housing crisis sealing off any decent standard of living from young, well educated Irish people (people tell me nothing radicalises like the London rental market: these people have never been to Dublin).
Having banished the ghost of John Charles McQuaid, it would seem that our politics are primed for genuine change. Saturday’s general election will be the first since the repeal of the 8th amendment. The attention of the public has turned towards more conventional democratic topics: a wave of strikes across education and childcare; GP visits costing 60 euros a pop; dissatisfaction over the government’s borderline obscene tax arrangements with tech corporations.
At a moment demanding change, Varadkar’s Fine Gael and Micheál Martin’s Fianna Fáil – both happy milquetoast warriors of the centre right, whose ideological differences are negligible to non-existent – offer nothing of the sort. The credibility of the Greens and the Irish Labour Party has been cast into doubt in the minds of many by successive coalitions with the two larger parties – though the climate crisis has boosted the Greens as serious political contenders and potential coalition partners. Putting aside the smaller left wing parties with little chance of winning more than a few seats (which, for full disclosure, would have my first preference) this just leaves Sinn Féin, who have surged in the polls – performing particularly strongly with young people – as February 8th approaches.
Perusing their manifesto, it’s not hard to see why, with policies covering public housing programmes and tackling rough sleeping, measures to push down the cost of childcare, and proposals around the public ownership of utilities. The press has been keen to link the rise of Sinn Féin to Brexit and how it has changed the dynamic between the two islands. There is possibly some truth to this assertion – passive support for a united Ireland has always been relatively high (Charles Haughey, Taoiseach on three occasions across the 1970s, 80s and 90s, returned to public life entirely unscathed after having resigned as a minister in 1970 for running guns to the IRA); though likewise, there are many for whom Sinn Féin’s intimate relationship with dissident republicanism in the recent past will prove altogether too troubling. However, if Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald becomes Ireland’s first female Taoiseach in a few days’ time, it will be housing, not Republicanism, that puts her there.