In 2007 the Irish electorate was very annoyed. Despite record spending levels many felt that the boom was still not reaching them. For 12 months before the general election parties tripped over themselves with ever better promises to woo and satisfy. The Government of FF and the PD’s seemed to be in for a hiding. That was true right up until the last two weeks of the campaign. Suddenly things changed. Brian Cowen, then Minister for Finance, warned that there were storm clouds ahead. Things might not be so rosy. He even admitted that the FF manifesto was based on growth figures that, if they did not materialise, might mean promises could not be delivered.
This acted like a torpedo to other parties manifestos that promised even more than the FF one. Suddenly as Pat Rabbitte said ‘Change became a bad word’. People feared change and risk. It’s all very well talking and shouting about it but everyone knows things can always be worse and when it came down to it people did not feel like risking.
As a result FF returned to power. However, the shudder in the economy that Cowen predicted was nothing like what happened. When I wrote ‘Brian Cowen: In his own words’ I pointed out that almost every budget speech gave some mention to property markets and the potential of a collapse or downturn but none of these predictions ever even imagined the possibility that the banks might go under. A short while ago I spoke to a former government minister who said that if he was told in 2008 of how big an adjustment would be made in terms of spending in the next 5 years he would have laughed and said that there would be revolution and such an adjustment was simply impossible. Yet it has happened.
The crisis was far greater that anyone in government thought. They were massively unprepared and completely at sea in dealing with it. By 2009 talk was of a tough budget. Several TD’s told me they favoured a ‘big bang’ approach. Get all the pain over in one budget and then still have time to let it fade rather than dragging it out over years. This line even gained traction in the media. It proves just how little was understood of what was happening that anyone even thought one budget could come close to making the adjustment that was needed.
After the crisis, the bailout and the troika the people knew what they wanted in 2011. They wanted to punish FF. They had not voted FF in on the back of their promises they had voted for them in the belief that they were the team to handle a crisis and they were badly let down. Yes some wanted FF to pay for the overspending of the boom. Yes some felt it was the job of the government to say no and protect us from ourselves at times but overwhelmingly there was a feeling of betrayal. That betrayal and annoyance came from the fact that people felt FF did not handle the crisis well. That was unforgivable. The 2011 election was an exercise in punishment, not revolution. FF got what they deserved. A new government came to power that found itself popular only because of the unpopularity of its opponent. With FF so weak and reduced to impotency people soon forgot about them and turned their attention to the people now in power. They weren’t too inspired by what they saw. The government has consistently lost ground in the polls ever since.
Sinn Fein had a dramatic early rise but despite how good the figures are for them they are not able to break the invisible ceiling that seems to be on their rise. Independents have gained the most. They continue to hold the trust that others can only dream of.
The problem for our next election is that we don’t really know what we want. We want things to get better yes, we want austerity to end. However, we are keenly aware that things have been and could be worse. We don’t want to risk what we have. We are nervous of those that promise everything, we know that promised lands quickly turn sour. That said we are in no mood to continue struggling, we have paid a heavy price and are at the limit of our ability to take any more pain. We are annoyed that banks and other institutions still enjoy enormous trust at government level and we fear that the mistakes of the past will be repeated. We do not, at the same time, really wish for a revolution, violence, or any big social upheaval.
We are caught. This government seems dangerously inept and indecisive but it has managed to oversee some steady improvements no matter what you put that down to. FF remains as it was. It has failed to inspire or demonstrate any great learning from its experiences and seems happy to just exist. There is nothing there to attract anyone or suggest forgiveness. Sinn Fein says a lot of the things we like. They talk about a society we can mostly identify with. We see they have some new and talented people that might be worth a shot. The problem is we are still wary. They continue with the line of being ‘revolutionary’. We want change yes but not revolution. They scare us off in that they might mean well but they just might muck things up. We want to believe them and trust them but we are not convinced that every other party is in some vast conspiracy to stop us.
As for those on the far left and right they will have their followers but for the vast majority they are always going too far. They always assume we support them and we don’t like our support being assumed by anyone.
So here we are. A volatile electorate unsure of what direction to turn. Hungry for change but desperately nervous at the same time. A modern day Cicero arguing with ourselves over the rights and wrongs of all sides and hopelessly indecisive about what to do. We want that leader, that leader who convinces us they can be all things to all people. When we are indecisive we look to find a leader who is decisive. We are looking for someone to trust and believe. It is unlikely we will find that this side of an election. We are probably at the beginning of a long series of conversations that will take some time to reach a conclusion and may be facing several elections before we finally decide exactly what path we should be on.