And they’re off! The 30th Dáil has reached the end of its troubled life and the starting gun was fired for the race for the 31st Dáil. The various candidates will be calling to your door in the next two weeks and you will be bombarded with literature, promises, and pledges.
The past few years have left Irish people shell-shocked. We are left with a dramatically changed political and economic landscape that would never have been envisaged by many people – or to misquote Barack Obama, ‘change you can’t believe in’ – just three years ago. Even if, perhaps, we should have seen some of it coming.
In light of this it is vitally important that voters pay real attention to the issues on this occasion and that we all question our candidates in detail on the big issues.
Yes, Insider hears the sniggers and well he appreciates that for most of you a firm – the degree of politeness depending on the mood you are in on the day - ‘Get off my property NOW!’ is the only engagement you envisage having with an FF candidate.
Insider believes however that it is still worth giving all a chance to explain their position.
The questions that must be asked
Let us begin with the broader and more obvious questions. Dara Calleary must be asked to account for his stewardship of the economy since being elected in 2007 and asked how he feels about it ending with Ireland effectively a ward of court of the ECB and IMF.
The two FF candidates should also be asked to explain their feelings about the behaviour of ministers last November when it was apparent to all and sundry that the IMF was in town and that Ireland was headed for a humiliating bailout – the ‘Comical Ali’ moment as it became known.
The image of two former ministers Dermot Ahern and Noel Dempsey smirking like two characters from a children’s comic – ‘I know nothing Noel, do you?’ ‘I know nothing either Dermot’ – as they denied all knowledge of what was to come will stand out.
‘Do you take the people for fools?’ might be a succinct way of summing up this question for your FF candidates.
Last September when the Government announced that the EU had asked it to devise a four-year plan for the reduction of the Budget deficit, many argued that this was one of the most important agreements ever negotiated by the Independent Irish State and that it was wrong for a government, with an approval rating barely in double digits and whose mandate would officially expire shortly in any case, to negotiate it without first calling an election.
Ask the FF candidates to justify going ahead and ask them whether the ensuing instability in the period since then can be justified.
Also ask FF candidates how the party can justify electing as its new leader a man who held senior ministries – including one economic portfolio – continuously since 1997.
Now looking to the future, there are some important policy areas to ask them about. The three most obvious are questions about the agreement with the IMF, negotiating with bank bondholders, and plans for restructuring our banking system.
The first two issues are complex but well versed in public discourse. Ask Lisa Chambers to justify FF claims that the IMF deal is a good one for Ireland and cannot be renegotiated and that the bank bondholders cannot be ‘burned’. Ask Dara Calleary if he can envisage any changes in these areas.
The third issue above is less commented upon, but is still important. Ask them what they envisage Ireland’s banking system will look like in say five years’ time.
Remember for many years the complaint was that Ireland was served by only two banks and that they were abusing their position. It could however be argued that banking competition in latter years has gone too far with disastrous consequences. Can a happy medium be attained? Should we retain one State bank in the long-term? What is FF’s vision for the banking sector?
Moving away from those obvious issues and turning to other economic issues, the issues of jobs and emigration surely arise. The total number of people on the live-register in County Mayo by the end of January stood at 13,468. The county’s youth have boarded the plane to the UK or Australia. It is like a scene from Reeling in the Years from 1986 - heartbreaking, pathetic even.
Beware of clichés
So ask your FF candidate about jobs but also about what policies FF has to bring prosperity to the regions – and not in terms of gombeen decentralisation either. Beware because political parties are full of clichés and grand pronouncements but very often lacking in substance when it comes to jobs.
If you are a young voter ask them to comment on the shocking levels of youth unemployment, in particular among young men, and what they plan to do about it.
You should also tackle them on what appears to be particularly punitive measures for the under-25s in the ‘four-year plan’, such as reduced salaries for new employees in the public sector, increased third level registration charges (and a return of fees to come? ), and reduced unemployment benefit for younger people.
Moving slightly away from the economy – though arguably everything is connected to that issue in one way or another – ask them about their plans to protect our children’s futures and about investment in education. Ask them whether for instance the integration of children of various backgrounds and cultures can be achieved while simultaneously reducing the number of language support teachers.
In light of the shocking recent increases in health insurance ask them what they plan to do to increase accessibility to healthcare and to reduce costs. Bear in mind that the Northern executive – under a Unionist health minister – recently abolished prescription charges.
In the Republic a family pays €120 per month for its prescription drugs. Recourse to private health insurance is also far less common in Britain. Ask the representatives of The Republican Party how they feel about this.
Finally turning to a social issue that is likely to feature in the coming weeks and months, abortion is something that politicians would rather not talk about. Perhaps you would however and remember you are the one in charge of this relationship, not the politicians.
Tackle them over the manner they have ducked and dived over the issue and ask them whether they will finally legislate for the Supreme Court judgement in the X Case and give some clarity for once and for all on the matter.
Ask them for a mature debate on the issue as a whole and end the pretence and denial that surrounds the issue of abortion in Ireland.
It is a tumultuous time for Ireland. These are dark days for our country. We should be honest about our failings and the humiliation that has been visited upon us and yes, no matter what Brian Cowen says, we should be ashamed about what has happened - but that shame should be used as a motivating factor to right our wrongs and not to repeat the mistakes made.
Questioning your candidates on what went wrong and what will be done to rectify matters is a good starting point. Even your FF candidates. If the answers are not satisfactory – or even not forthcoming – move on to someone else. There is too much at stake.