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Irish Politics - Media

Is there room for another political party?

There is a very different tone to RTE’s advertising these days. Apart from exhortations to buy a TV licence “brought to you from the Government of Ireland”, there is a plethora of state or semi-state advertising covering a vast spectrum of campaigns from “Your Mental Health” and sexual harrassment to winter windscreen wiper maintenance, from farm safety to internet fraud, and from domestic abuse prevention, to warnings about unlicensed gas maintenance men and unregistered estate agents, and everywhere else in between.

The majority of ad breaks on RTE radio seems to be composed of this kind of state preaching or TV licence ads or advertisement of other radio programmes. Whether RTE goes with its begging bowl to state departments or agencies, or whether there is an unspoken political directive to state agencies and departments to use up unspent funds on advertising campaigns, or whether the private commercial sector has simply moved its advertising budgets elsewhere, the net result is that RTE has become very heavily dependent on the state and on its licence fee to survive in admittedly difficult times.

That trend carries dangers for RTE’s editorial independence. The licence fee model of broadcasting finance is supposed to underpin editorial independence. It has now become obsolete and needs to be replaced by a universal household levy collected in the same way as LPT.

But the deeper trend in state advertising of policy goals needs to be examined as well. Are we becoming increasingly used to receiving a form of daily exhortatory propaganda decided upon by whom? Has the Covid pandemic, which was an emergency that could justify unusual levels of public information and health propaganda, allowed us to consider it normal to have so much behaviour-changing advertising made part of our daily lives? Would the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland allow any non-state body or grouping the right to use broadcast advertising to contradict or even to query government, departmental or state agency policy in the same way that a newspaper might carry whole page campaign ads for vegans and others?

It is one thing for politicians to articulate their ideas and policies; it is entirely different to permit the elected government to use public revenues to fashion social “group-think”. Democratic discourse requires the former; there is something Orwellian about the latter.

There has been a sea-change in political discourse since the onset of Covid. Some have seen the pandemic as a possible catalyst for widespread political change – a game-changer economically and socially. The massive programme of state interventions to protect he weakest and most vulnerable sections of society from the effects of the lockdown, which is financed by borrowing, has created a sense of indifference to the economic consequences of saying yes to every demand on the exchequer for post Covid recovery programmes and expenditures.

There have been significant disruptions in the supply of energy and commodities as well as disruption to employment patterns. We were assured by central bankers that inflationary pressures would be temporary. But now inflation and interest rates seem destined to rise significantly and to do so in the medium term. There is a lot of paper money sloshing about in the aftermath of quantitative easing, both nationally and internationally. This is not a healthy or sustainable economic environment.

Our politics have responded in a very weak way to all of these challenges. The unique FF-FG alliance with the Greens has brought about a strange competition in government itself to hunt down fickle political support. The recent Irish Times Ipsos MRBI opinion poll showed FF and FG knocked back and far behind Sinn Féin. All the coalition parties are playing a game of vying backbench discontents and dog-whistle briefing to burnish their own identities. And that is nothing new, as I know myself.

But this time FF and FG face a dark horizon. Does either of them see a pathway to being the largest party in a coalition formed after the next election? Could either of them survive in an election promising more of the same? While FG may have hoped until recently to emerge as the bigger of the two, and may still hope to do so, their individual shares of public support suggest that neither is on course to nominate the next Taoiseach. And if or when that penny drops with the electorate, FG hopes of eclipsing FF may fade.

Does that mean that Mary Lou is a shoo-in for Taoiseach? Nothing is inevitable in Irish politics. On the second last page of Saving the Nation by Ciara Meehan and Stephen Collins, a recently published history of FG, Leo Varadkar is quoted as fearing something re-emerging in the political space once occupied by the Progressive Democrats.

Middle Ireland may want such an alternative rather than have a choice between the current coalition and Sinn Féin.

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