Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Country Mice, City Mice

“Drink Driving, Grants for TD’s Constituency, Character References for Criminals: Fianna Fáil Are Back Baby!”
  —Headline on the satirical Irish newspaper website Waterford Whispers News, July 8
“A Cabinet Fit for Cromwell,” proclaimed a headline in the County Mayo-based Western People newspaper four weeks ago. That’s no small amount of pique or annoyance for a Connacht publication to express. To this day, one hears the name of England’s 17th-century military leader and Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell invoked with a revulsion so enduring it feels as though the swath his army cut through Ireland occurred only a week ago.

What cabinet sparked such a visceral reaction in a regional newspaper? Was it a ministerial shuffle by Boris Johnson in the UK or perhaps some dodgy compromise in the Northern Ireland Assembly? No, it was directed at the Republic’s new government in Dublin.

How did this happen? To recap briefly, a general election was held on February 8. The vote was split roughly in quarters—one for left-wing/pro-unification party Sinn Féin and one each for traditional centrist parties Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. The rest went to smaller parties and independents. After four-and-a-half months of posturing and negotiations, a government was formed on June 27. Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin heads the government until December 2022 after which Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar will replace him as Taoiseach. The two also alternate as each other’s Tánaiste (deputy prime minister). The third member of the coalition is the Green Party, giving the government the solid bloc of votes needed for a stable majority.

How stable is it, though? No one seems particularly thrilled by this government. Perhaps die-hard Fianna Fáil partisans are, but their numbers shrank drastically after the 2011 election debacle when the party was punished roundly for its role in the country’s financial crash. Notably unhappy is the half of the electorate that voted for Sinn Féin, independents and other left-wing parties and who felt there had been a pretty clear mandate for change. Quite a few Green Party members also seemed unhappy, although in the end members did ratify the party’s participation in the government in surprisingly large numbers.

While the traditional way of looking at the country’s political division would be in terms of the left/right split, it might be clearer to see it as an urban/rural split. The Western People headline above was in reaction to the fact that, for the first time in yonks, the government’s voting cabinet included no TD (member of parliament) from west of the Shannon River. Westerners were particularly sensitive this time around because the government’s aggressive program for reducing Ireland’s carbon footprint, which was pushed hard by the Greens and, more importantly, mandated by the European Union. As mentioned here last time, as a nation less industrialized than other European ones, Ireland can only achieve this through sacrifices from vehicle owners and farmers. TDs in the Dublin area represent mostly people who never go near a farm and who have access to public transportation, while the West will be asked to undergo a radical change to its traditions and lifestyle.

The omission of a western cabinet minister did soon get rectified in classically Irish fashion. In what seemed like a political hit job, a story came out about the new agricultural minister having been caught for drink driving a few years ago at a road checkpoint after an All-Ireland football match. It further emerged that he had been driving on a learner’s permit up until the age of 47. That fellow (brother of the last previous Fianna Fáil Taoiseach, as it happens) was soon pushed out, freeing up a cabinet seat for a TD from County Mayo. This hasn’t placated the wary westerners much, and now it’s the Midlands complaining they no longer have a minister.

Rural/urban divides are common enough in world politics, and no more so in the United States. Non-urban voters in the U.S. have a bit more of an advantage than in most countries, though. Senate voting and the Electoral College give extra weight to states at the expense of the general population. It was a carefully crafted compromise in the Constitution to convince less populated states to stay in the Union and assure them that their interests would not be overridden by people in dense population centers. That old tension has not gone away. After all, that 18th-century compromise made possible the elections of George W. Bush and Donald Trump.

The looming question in both the U.S. and Ireland is what happens if and when people rural dwellers begin to feel that not only are their interests overridden but they themselves are under attack? We can only hope the various political systems will be up to the challenge.