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Fintan O’Toole: Will Election 2020 be another story of cynical politics and patronage?

Our politicians think we are not interested in long-term policies. The election will test if their cynicism is justified

As we head into a general election we might ask ourselves three questions. What do we want? What do our political leaders think we want? And are the answers to the first two questions the same?

The main parties don’t have a very high opinion of our aspirations. They think we’re lying when we claim to want a better society. How do we know this? Just follow the money. It goes to where they think our hearts really are.

Consider two small details from last week – some of the last decisions of Leo Varadkar’s current administration.

On Friday the Government announced a package of €77 million in capital grants to sports organisations. One of the biggest was for Connacht Rugby’s redevelopment of its stadium on College Road in Galway.


How much did it get? The Department of Sport had been adamant that Connacht Rugby should get €10 million. Yet as Fiach Kelly reported in The Irish Times, "Connacht Rugby was unhappy that it was getting €10 million for its stadium, not €20 million. Pressure was exercised. The extra €10 million was found just minutes before the grants were announced."

Varadkar personally gave the commitment – €10 million conjured up Tommy Cooper-style, just like that.

Another announcement was made the previous day. The Minister for Education, Joe McHugh, heralded a new pilot scheme to provide free school books to 15,000 pupils in Deis (disadvantaged) primary schools.

How much money did he get for it? A million euro, one-tenth of the amount the Taoiseach would pull from his magic money hat the following day.

What we have to face is that the main parties think that, whatever we as voters might pretend to want, what we really want is patronage

And while the Connacht Rugby money could be found in a matter of minutes, the €1 million for school books is the outcome of many years of dogged campaigning. The children's charity Barnardos has been slogging away, producing fully-costed research on the provision of genuinely free primary education. The Irish Times/Children's Rights Alliance campaign, No Child 2020, also focused on the issue. This million euro is blood squeezed from a stone.

Public money

To be clear: there is a very good case for public money to go into sports infrastructure. I am not criticising Connacht Rugby. The point is simply that here we have two cases where “pressure was exerted” in the run-up to a general election. In the first the pressure was entirely and instantly successful. In the second success was incredibly hard won, and it is both partial and tenuous.

Ireland, shamefully, is unique among developed countries in not providing free primary education. The cost of free school books for all pupils is €20 million. The pressure to pony up extracted an extra €1 million, and even this is explicitly on a “pilot” basis – there is no commitment in public policy even to giving the poorest kids free school books as a matter of right.

So why the difference? These two cases illustrate two very different notions of how politics works. One is about patronage; the other is about the public good.

And what we have to face is that the main parties think that, whatever we as voters might pretend to want, what we really want is patronage.

Why does Connacht Rugby get its instant extra €10 million? Because Fine Gael has two TDs in Galway, Sean Kyne and Hildegarde Naughton, who want to be able to say "I got you that".

The stadium is local and specific – it’s in a constituency. And why do our school kids not get free books? Because the issue is national and unspecific. It’s not a constituency thing.

These people are not stupid. They are making a brutal calculation about us, the voters. They reckon this is what we want.

They are sure that “I got our constituency a new stadium” is a vote-winner, but “I got free school books for our kids” is not.

Since they are, by definition, people who have succeeded in the system, we must take their instincts very seriously.

Weird double game

Irish politics has always operated a weird double game of Pets Win Prizes – the weirdness lying in the way both the politicians and the voters think they are the pets.

The TDs see themselves as retrievers who answer the prime command “fetch!” Go up there and get us stuff.

The State itself is in no fit shape to meet the great existential challenge of the next decade, which is to decarbonise the economy and create a sustainable society

The voters see themselves as poodles who, if they perform the right tricks in the polling booth, will be rewarded with special treats, just for them.

For neither side is there much in the way of democratic dignity.

Yet this is the system, and it is one in which aspirant TDs will always be right when they say of serious, long-term sustainable policies that “sure, there’s no votes in that”.

Pets winning prizes means that slow-release actions on healthcare, planning, housing, inequality or climate change will always come a distant second to the instant gratification of patronage.

Yet the costs of this system are clearer than ever: almost every public system is in a bad state. The State itself is in no fit shape to meet the great existential challenge of the next decade, which is to decarbonise the economy and create a sustainable society.

The election will tell us whether the politicians’ cynical assessment that we don’t really care about all that is still accurate.