The Umbrella Revolution

As thousands of people take to the streets today to protest at water charges I wonder if they will have any more effect than they would have if they protested about the rain pouring down on them. Not that I doubt there will be some effect. When that number of people assemble for any reason the political structures must react.

But since all the major parties have a basic position of being in favor of water charges, with the exception of Sinn Fein, it’s hard to see how they might reverse their positions easily. And, should they try, they face the problem of (as they would see it) imposing more austerity in some other area that would be equally unpopular.

But part of this mental construct that I have – which I think is shared by many – is that in the next election there will still only be a choice between the Tweedledum and Tweedledee politics of either Fine Gael, Labour or Fianna Fail. The fallacy, which I think is shared by many voters, is that one must vote for a ‘government’ rather than an individual.

We have been conditioned into this mode of thinking by both politicians and commentators – commentators who in themselves have been conditioned to think this way by their daily proximity to the political world.

We are told that while a voter can ‘give a mention’ to a popular independent, they are obliged to think of the bigger picture and vote to ensure that there is a ‘viable’ government. And as the election draws to its final stages, political parties urge us to vote in a way that will allow certain groups to form governments or, in the case of Labour last time out, not allow Fine Gael to form a government on its own.

But this is a complete fallacy perpetrated by the political parties to prevent any major upset in the political landscape. The fact is, we are not obliged in any way to vote based on our thinking of who is best placed to form a government or not. In terms of seeking change, the best way to vote is for the candidate that best represents change, whether they are an independent or a member of a party. In fact, for those of us seeking some fundamental change, voting for an independent (any independent) is probably the best way of making our feelings known.

We are told that there would be chaos if the independents were too strong, that it would be difficult to form a government and that there are too many conflicting opinions among the independents for them to get together in any coherent way. Stephen Collins, the political editor of the Irish Times, was harping on this topic again today here, and suggesting that the current 28 TDs who can be classed as independents would be increased in the next election leading to all sorts of instability and political strife.

Well, hardly. What exactly would be the ‘strife’. It would be inconvenient for politicians, yes, and might expose some who are committed to some policies on paper, but in reality would accept a ‘watering-down’ (sorry!) of previously firmly-held principles.

We just saw today that Sinn Fein are now the largest party in the State and that will bring its own troubles for them. Can they stay outside of government while they hold that mandate from the electorate? It’s a little hard to object to every austerity cut when you’re in the actual government, though that’s something they have managed rather successfully in the North. It is a different situation there, of course, in that they have the big bad British government to blame if things go wrong, while still being able to take credit for when things go right.

But even if the Sinn Fein vote holds up for the next election and they manage to replicate their recent successes in the polls, that doesn’t necessarily mean the party will go into power. The Umbrella protest today – on top of the previous protest – show there is a groundswell of support for something to change. The water charges are the last straw for many, but the question is where that anger will go in terms of translating into votes.

There are many people out there who will never vote for Sinn Fein no matter what they do. But they certainly can reduce the vote of Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fail to a point where those parties have to change not just their policies, but their approach to politics.

It’s not going to matter much if they leave that until after the election, so the time to start would be now. They will repeat their mantra, of course, that they are bound by rules set down in Europe etc, but that message is not reaching a large proportion of the electorate. And they will try to promise change post-election, which commits them to very little.

So it will be interesting to see if the raising of the umbrellas will have an effect on the main political parties or if they think they can still continue with policies that are anathema to a large proportion of people.

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