Saving the Centre -Op-ed for Sunday Independent

9th March, 2020

The political centre has served Ireland well since we opened to the world from the 1960s onwards.

It has enabled us to become one of the world’s prosperous countries. It has created public services that laid the foundations for economic transformation and longer and healthier lives.

The centre has played an important role in overdue social change and has led political transformation, such as through the Northern Ireland Peace Process and our relationship with the European Union.

We are a small country, known around the world, in a way that neither resources nor size should command.

But, the centre is not the same as the status quo. However, it is viewed as such by too many.

It is challenging to rally people behind a message of pragmatism, compromise and incremental change when other voices are offering simpler solutions in an increasingly complex world.

‘What do we want?’, ‘Moderation’, ‘When do we want it?’, ‘Now’ is hardly a rallying call for the generations.

As the recent election demonstrated, such frustrations are now felt and articulated across many elements of Irish society. Those not facing acute difficulty feel that they will or could, or that someone they love could or will.

The centre must respond. It is not the voice of the establishment. It is not a convenient mask for insiders.

The centre delivers policies that serve ordinary people; all people. It delivers policies that will be affordable year to year and that will strengthen our ability to create and retain jobs.

And while we should be wary of any single explanation for the political anxieties we have witnessed, there is a common thread that links many of them and that is insecurity, uncertainty and apprehension about the future.

In particular, the inability of politics to make sufficient progress in the areas that matter to citizens, like housing and health – and to tackle the challenges of the future, particularly climate change – at a rate that is deemed to be acceptable – is fraying our social contract.

We have achieved much, but too many judge it not to be enough.

So the political centre faces an unprecedented challenge; the people have spoken. This may be our last opportunity to salvage it.

If the centre wants to save itself, it needs to change. It has to offer more than just compromise and pragmatism. Instead it needs to be, as the great American political historian Arthur Schlesinger said, a “fighting faith” capable of answering questions vital to the needs of society.

The anthem must be to offer achievable solutions to the social needs of our citizens in an increasingly complex world, while always challenging the convenient utopias, quick fixes and disingenuous plans of those on the extremes.

What is to be done?

In simple terms, we must build on our successes in job creation and wealth redistribution to deliver a more inclusive form of prosperity and well-being. The vehicle for this change is an even more active and ambitious State.

In an era of enormous change, the role of the State as both a guarantor of social and economic security and provider of opportunity, has become ever more important for those nations – like Ireland – that are most exposed to globalisation. 

Equally, we must ensure that markets function better in the public interest, while also recognising their limits.

For example, it is clear that a market-led approach will not deliver affordable homes at the scale they are required. The availability of land for affordable housing in appropriate locations is still a massive challenge. We must therefore transform the manner in which we plan, manage and use land in our urban areas.

Critically, we must stabilise land prices by releasing large tracts of public land to the Land Development Agency and also ensuring that the rezoning of land benefits the community to the greatest extent possible.

The public good must always precede private interests.

This builds on what Fine Gael has delivered. We have increased investment in our country by building more homes, by action on climate change and through better health facilities.

But we received a clear message on February 8th. As opposed to the debate about who will be in government, the equally important question will be how do we safeguard the policies that have worked and, significantly, change what has not.

Continuity will be fatal.

So the question is whether, like the demise of Mark Twain, whose death, it was said, was ‘greatly exaggerated’, this weakening of the centre is much overstated, or whether we are approaching a moment on the way to a deeper and more permanent and perpetual decline.

I know what moment I want it to be.