A year or so ago, diesel could be regularly be obtained at the pumps for about €1.16 a litre. This week, in Tipperary, it cost €2.14. Some people in Dublin were paying nearly €2.20.
By itself, the surge in the price of fuel is a problem. When you combine it with surging rents, the likelihood of interest rate rises pushing up mortgage payments, and an ever ballooning national debt, it has the makings of an economic disaster. Every day of the week, journalists get emails from people who are, if not quite desperate, then increasingly worried about how to pay the bills. We get them, at least in part, because those people think we have a better chance of highlighting their problems than our politicians do.
This was not, to put it mildly, a banner week for the idea that politics is supposed to represent and reflect the concerns of the people. In Sligo, a Cath lab is on the chopping block, despite almost universal opposition to the proposed closure by local people and their representatives. In Brussels, the EU declared that rising fuel prices are no impediment to pushing ahead with the Green agenda. In Dublin, the Government said that its immigration policy – despite the housing crisis and ever-increasing pressure on schools, and GP surgeries, and accident and emergency units – was that there would and could be no limits on the numbers coming here.
Populism is often derided, sometimes rightly. It is, after all, easy to be a populist. It costs nothing to say things like “we should build more houses” or “house the Irish first” or to denounce an elite and out of touch government that “doesn’t understand the concerns of working people”. We have no shortage of easy populists in Ireland, on both left and right, eager to say what people want to hear. What we lack, though, is a coherent politics of any kind, from left, right, or centre, Government or opposition.
My colleague Ben Scallan, for example, is fond of pointing out the dichotomy between Sinn Fein’s pledges on energy costs, and Sinn Fein’s positions on the climate change issue. One, he correctly notes, directly contradicts the other. You cannot have climate action and cheaper energy bills, at least, not in the very short term, and not without untold billions of additional spending on “investment”.
The same incoherence is visible in the Government’s approach on housing: They are building new homes, all right, but at a slower rate than they are admitting new migrants who need homes. More than half our population increase in the last six years, according to yesterday’s preliminary census figures, comes from net migration. Politics is about making tough choices – you can have one thing, but not, always, the other. Ireland has a political class allergic to admitting that tough choices exist, let alone making them.
They are focused, instead, on the nonsense things. The things where no choices need to be made at all. The leader of Seanad Eireann is one of the more senior politicians in the country, and her contribution to Irish politics this week was to announce that after a long and thorough debate, the country now recognises nine genders. This announcement was made to the Scottish Parliament at about the same time as I was filling my car with diesel, and honestly, if the price was half what it presently is, perhaps I’d be more open to the idea of there being nine or ten or fifty genders.
But Regina Doherty, to cite just one example, has no real clue about what to do about fuel prices. That, unfortunately, is a hard question because it is somewhat beyond her direct control. It involves all sorts of issues about taxation and global trade and EU energy policy that might take work to solve. It’s much easier to change the number of recognised genders.
There is a sense, in the country, that things are a bit out of control. That Crime is out of control, even as the Gardai devoted a whole day this week to asking people to monitor others for hate speech. That anti social behaviour is rampant. That many unelected officials simply make up rules and decisions as they go along, and politicians don’t have the ability to bring them to heel.
Coming back to yesterday’s census figures, it was quite something to see the chatter amongst politicians. You might think, as a citizen, that the implications of a large population rise on housing, schools, hospitals, and GPs would be their main concern. Reader, it was not. Talk to any politician yesterday, and you’d have heard the same issue raised over, and over again: Would the census figures mean a rise in the number of Dáil seats to 171, or 172?
Observing our political class up close, as those of us who write about politics do, is a lot like observing them from a distance. There is no redeeming feature hidden behind the façade. Sometimes people say things like “well the average TD works very hard”. That is true. It’s also besides the point: We don’t elect them to work very hard. We elect them to govern the country. Most people would accept a lazy, inactive, sleepy Oireachtas if fuel prices were normal, homes were accessible and affordable, and the streets were safe, and calling a GP for an appointment got you one this side of August. Working hard isn’t much use if the question you’re working so hard on is whether our green spaces provide sufficient visual representation to intersex folk.
At some point, politicians, opposition and government alike, need to get serious. Because along will come, in time, somebody who promises to fix these problems who is convincing, and strong, and blows them all away. Ireland is primed for populism, and it’s the political class, not anybody else, which is doing the priming.